Faster than Lightning: My Autobiography - Usain Bolt (2013)

Chapter 15. I Am Legend

I’ve learned to read the emotions of an opponent. It’s an important skill, like a card player checking out his rivals to see if they’re holding a good hand, or bluffing. In a split second I can spot a flicker of fear, a worry, some stress. It’s usually found in the eyes. But sometimes I know whether I have to worry about an athlete (or not) by the way he walks around the call room, or how he prepares himself on the start line.

When I walked to the track for the 100 metres final, I made a quick look across the lanes to the other athletes. Cameras flashed, a crazy buzz of excitement burned around the stadium as everyone waited for the starter’s gun. The energy seemed to ping off the ground like sparks. I could feel my muscles tensing.

I checked left, then right. Everyone was stretching into their start positions – Gatlin and Tyson, Asafa and Blake – and I could see who was worried by the pressure and who wasn’t. Tyson and Gatlin were fine, but then I knew nerves had never really bothered Gatlin; Tyson had been in great form during the build-up to London and must have felt confident.

It was the Jamaicans who seemed unsure. Asafa looked a little nervous – the same old story as before. But Blake appeared stressed too, and that was the strangest thing to me. The confidence he’d shown in those interviews had faded. I’d first spotted his mood change earlier that evening when we had been working together on the warm-up track. He had been sitting around, relaxing, probably way too much. He wasn’t preparing as intensively as he should have been, and I knew that if a runner stopped moving before a big final then the nerves could set in, his legs might start shaking. Over-thinking the scale of a prize and what was going to happen in a major final was a bad way for any athlete to prepare. It was self-destructive.

I didn’t want that to affect Blake. Despite our rivalry, we were friends and team-mates – Racers. Besides, I wanted to beat him at his very best. I tried to fire him up.

‘Yo, you should do some more warm-up sprints,’ I shouted as Eddie stretched me out.

He sat down on the track and shook his head. ‘I’m OK,’ he said.

I wasn’t convinced. ‘You sure?’

‘Yeah!’

‘A’ight, dawg,’ I thought. ‘It’s on you. If you’re OK, you’re OK …’

I could tell he didn’t want to listen to me anymore. I guess he might have been thinking, ‘What the hell? Why is this guy helping me?’ Maybe he didn’t trust my motives. Still, he should have known me better. I was genuine and wanted the best for him. Just as I’d given Asafa a brief boost of confidence before the Olympic final in Beijing, so I was trying to help Blake.

I knew why he was nervous: the Olympic stage was huge. Sure, his winning the World Champs had been big, but the Games in London were a step up and the size of the event often played on an athlete’s mind. I’ve said it to people all the time: ‘Yeah, it’s easy to compete with yourself, but when you line up with the best sprinters in the world, life gets a little tougher. The top guns are on that Olympic start line and one slip means you’re not getting a medal. If you don’t get your s**t together, you’re going home empty-handed.’

I could tell that the same realisation was dawning on Blake, but if the kid didn’t want my help, then so be it. I left him to work through it on his own.

Regardless of who was mentally ready and who wasn’t, I was glad that the starting line-up was strong. I knew there couldn’t be a repeat of ’08 when fans pointed to Tyson’s absence as the reason for my gold medals. This time there would be no ‘buts’, no ‘maybes’. Instead, when I looked across the lanes, everybody who was anybody in sprinting was there. I was battling against the best, which meant I could erase all the doubts about my ability and prove that I was The Man, the Number One athlete in track and field.

But suddenly I got hit by a little worry of my own. It came out of the blue: three stupid words I’d thought were gone for good, flashing across my mind; a dangerous reminder of what had happened before.

‘Don’t false start …’ it said. ‘Don’t false start …

It was crazy. The stress was still there! The memory of Daegu had reared up at the worst possible time.

‘Oh God, why are you thinking about that now? Come on man, get over it!’

As I refocused, I remembered Coach’s words again.

‘Yeah, that’s right, Bolt. Just chill.’

Then I heard another voice, but this time it was echoing around the Olympic Stadium.

‘On your marks …’

The crowd quietened down, people started to whisper. A call of ‘Ssshhhhh!’ hissed around the seats and blew across the track like a cold wind. I dropped to my knees, crossed myself and said a little prayer to the heavens.

Please give me the strength to go out there and do what I have to do …

Another call. ‘Get set …’

Don’t false start …

Bang!

I moved after the ricochet of the pistol, and as my body rose I quickly assessed the situation. There had been no early reaction. Cool, you’re on point. It’s go time …

I could always tell instantly whenever I’d made a great start or not. If it was good, the push felt smooth, the muscles were strong and power pumped through my legs. It was like an explosion away from the blocks. But the perfect start in a competitive race happened rarely, maybe once every couple of years. If a start was bad, I always felt awful. Limp. Weak. There was no energy whatsoever.

As I leapt from the line, I knew my push had been bad, but when I looked up at the pack, I realised that Gatlin had made one of the best starts I’d ever seen in my life. It was powerful and sleek, and I could not work out for the life of me how he had moved away so quickly. I saw him take two steps before I’d even taken one and as he tore off down the track, I thought I was seeing things.

What?!

The race chat had started; I cussed myself.

‘Bolt! What the hell was that start? That was horrible. What’s wrong with you?’

The rest of the field had burned down the track ahead of me, but I knew I had to concentrate on my own strides rather than anyone else’s. Despite my stupid start, gold was still in reach.

Relax … Relax … Calm down …

I focused on my technique again, my drive phase had been good and after another second had passed, I glanced across the pack. The race had evened out. I could see a line of people. Everybody was equal.

Alright, we’re all together, nobody’s pulling away. It’s over now …

My long strides pushed me past the other athletes; I was like a sports car moving into top gear. I passed the 60-metre mark, then 65. I was hitting high speed as everyone else fell off behind me. The 2012 Olympics final was proving to be a competition of simple math, like so many others: the world’s best and their 45 steps battling it out with my 41.

Before the race started, my only focus had been to come in as the Number One athlete. Making a killer time hadn’t even been an issue in my mind. Once I knew the gold was mine, I remember thinking, Yo, you got this! Which in hindsight was just about the worst thing that could have happened because the realisation allowed me to switch off. I relaxed. I slowed down. Then something went off in my head like a fire alarm.

S**t! The world record! Bolt, the world record!

Damn! I had put my foot up too early, I had chilled, and as the awful realisation that I might have missed the shot at a landmark time dawned on me, I began digging towards the line. I dived for the finish, hoping to shave a couple of hundredths of a second from my speed, but I stooped too early and my rhythm collapsed. It was a clumsy move and straightaway I knew I’d blown it.

I looked up at the clock.

Usain Bolt: first place.

9.63 seconds – the fastest Olympic 100 ever.

I had missed out on my own world record because of a lapse in concentration.

Racing momentum is funny thing. A sprinter has to run straight through a 100 metres race if he wants to win big; he can’t slow in the middle and then try to over-stride or speed up at the end. If he or she does that, they’re going to lose time because their momentum breaks. I had made that mistake and reached for the finish too early. Had I not chilled with 20 or so metres to go I might have made a crazy time, like 9.52 seconds. Instead I judged my dip all wrong and fell short.

As I ran around the corner, there was the usual chaos afterwards – photos, hugs, a pose for the fans, but Coach was not happy. When I left the track, I heard him calling over to me. After the 2009 World Championships, I’d learned not to ask for his opinion whenever I’d won a gold medal, but it was clear the man was going to give it to me this time, whether I liked it or not.

‘Amateur!’ he said, walking my way. He was tutting, shaking his head.

‘Huh?’

‘Bolt, you’re an amateur,’ he repeated – like I hadn’t heard him.

‘What?! Why? I just won gold!’

‘Well, yes you did, but you robbed yourself of the possibility of breaking the world record by half a stride. You dropped more than that in time by diving for the line from so far out and you lost momentum. It is not what I expect of someone of your professionalism. That’s why I say, it was an amateur dive.’

I shook my head.

‘So, OK, Coach, how fast do you think I could have gone then?’

‘Potential is an abstract thing … And it’s guessing. What I would say is that you’re currently capable of running faster than you’ve ever run before. As for the limits it’s not for me to guess. I tend not to look beyond the here and now …’

‘Yo, Coach: how fast?’

‘You should be running 9.52 by now. You were in the shape to run that today, but you joked around too much on the line. If you’d been serious, you might have even made a time of 9.49.’

Since those early shock results in the 100 metres, and my world records during 2008 and 2009, Coach had never been wrong about my times. He had judged pretty accurately what I would achieve, based on my form and fitness. His latest prediction had blown my mind.

***

If the 200 was my race, then I was going to defend the Olympic title with everything I had. Especially from Blake.

I came off that corner like a slingshot. After 80 metres I hit top speed and was leading the line. My heart was pounding hard; I could feel a rush, a beautiful sense of freedom that comes with a smooth race. It was ridiculous fun. I peeked across the pack as I came into the straight but I’d passed everyone. There was danger, though. I could see that Blake had made a charge out of the corner of my eye, so I hit the track hard. Harder.

My lead was growing, but I knew I had to stay focused. I couldn’t relax. A lot of times in a 200 metres race, when a runner hits the 180-metre mark his speed naturally slows down. It’s impossible for him to keep his maximum pace going for the full distance and the final stretch is a dangerous time for any sprinter because an opponent can come through and steal first place on the line.

Not this time. Blake didn’t have enough to catch me. With 70 metres to go I knew I’d won another gold; I just had to keep my stride right and maintain a steady rhythm. As I approached the final 10 metres, I put the brakes on and slowed to a jog because I wanted to leave my mark. The race was won for sure, so I glanced over at Blake. He was right behind me. I caught his eye and slowly put a finger to my lips.

Ssshhhhh!

It was a message. It said, ‘Yo, don’t ever disrespect me again.’ And the look on his face told me he’d understood.

I pounded my chest and pointed to the crowd, shouting, screaming, ‘I did it!’ I dropped to the floor and did five push-ups – one for every Olympic gold medal I’d won so far. I’d proved my point: the 200 was my event, nobody else’s.

I had shown everybody that I was still Number One, despite the doubts and the talk that had taken place following the Olympic trials. As I got to my feet and jogged around the stadium, a Jamaican flag wrapped around my shoulders, I felt a hand grab at me. It was Blake and despite my statement, it was time to forget. I gave him a hug because I had no beef with him. It was done.

In that moment, I didn’t say anything more to him about our situation. We did our victory lap together and I was happy for him – he had taken silver. There was really no need to mention the Jamaican trials again. I didn’t have to say, ‘Hey, you were wrong for disrespecting me out there’, because a) I didn’t want him to lose focus for the 4x100 relay final later on in the championships and b) I didn’t want a bad vibe around the village for the rest of the Olympics.

Like Pops had taught me as a kid when he’d dished out the whoop-ass: always show good manners. And if a situation’s ever going to get heated, then forget it – it usually means there’s nothing more to discuss. I was over it. Life was cool again.

***

Finally I could call myself a sporting legend.

I know that sounds cocky, but it was true. By winning gold in the 100 and 200 metres Olympic finals for the second time, I had proved that I was The Real Deal. Winning three gold medals in Beijing wasn’t quite enough to make me one of the greatest sportsmen ever, but doing it twice was something to shout about.

It was huge. It set me apart from so many other athletes and nobody could dispute my status, not after London. I had achieved so much in track and field. I’d proven to the world that I was the best at what I did and I was the top draw wherever I raced. That had allowed me to give so much back to the sport. For the past few years, whenever I’d showed up at a meet, tickets had sold out; I could stack a stadium on my own and all eyes were on me when I arrived at the start line. If I competed in Europe, every stand in the arena was full. Without me, some of those seats would have been empty.

It was the same in London. When tickets were released for the 100 and 200 metres finals, they sold out in a crazy time. People in England without seats stressed because they wouldn’t get to see me in the flesh. In 2008, three billion people watched me break the 100 metres world record on the TV; billions of people watched the Olympics all over the world in 2012. Those figures had brought a lot of money to the sport in sponsorship and commercial deals. I’d set the standards high.

After my lap of honour, I sat in the media conference and laid it down to everyone.

‘I am a living legend,’ I said. ‘Bask in my glory.’

Everybody laughed. Nobody bothered to challenge me. Well how could they? It was true.

***

Nobody but Coach.

If he had been vexed by my performance in the 100, then he was even quicker to point out the fact that my 200 victory had come at a price. By crossing the line that way, by silencing Blake, I’d passed up a chance of taking the world record again. I’d slowed down when I should have made a dive for the line. Coach later told me that I’d been running fast enough to break my time of 19.19 seconds easily.

‘Amateur,’ he said, again. ‘Amateur!

This time I didn’t care so much. I had made my point, so I shrugged it off. The world was hyped about my achievements and, as I’d experienced in Beijing, it wanted a piece of me once more. Nearly all of the attention was good, but as is always the way in track and field, there was a little bit of bad to go with it – the topic of doping reared its head again.

As in ’08 there were questions from the media after my 100 metres gold, but I understood why one or two people were raising their eyebrows at my achievements. It had been pretty incredible after all and the odd doubter was something I’d got used to. Besides, I knew the accusations were crap, so like Beijing I had no issue with answering drug-related enquiries. But then a reporter asked me if I knew who Carl Lewis was.

I shrugged my shoulders. I explained that I’d heard he was a former American athlete, but that was it, I wasn’t really sure. I guess one of the weirdest things about me and track and field was that I didn’t really know its history, certainly not as far back as the 80s, when Lewis was racing.

Then the journalist told me he had been making noises about my achievements.* It was the same old argument that Jamaican athletes weren’t tested as vigorously as those in other countries. But the impact of a man called Carl Lewis saying something about Jamaican athletics didn’t really register at first. I had no real idea who he was, or the full events of his life. My interest in the 100, 200 and track and field began with Michael Johnson and Maurice Greene. I didn’t think any more about the name until I chilled in the village the next day and somebody told me to Google his career.

When I flipped open my laptop, checked out his story and realised he had won nine Olympic gold medals in the ’80s and ’90s including a few in my events, the 100 and 200, I got angry that he was saying so much crap about me. Then I got mad with the newspaper guys who were repeating his words – they knew what he was saying was untrue. In my mind, athletics, WADA, JADCO and the IAAF had been trying to move on.

Here are the facts: during the season, the Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission carried out tests up to five times a day for 40 weeks. There were also unannounced tests for all Jamaican athletes. The country signed the Copenhagen Declaration on Anti-Doping in Sport in 2003 and we worked with the rules set out by WADA. The JAAA followed the same laws as everyone else.

Everyone was getting tested and when people cheated, they got caught. To me, that meant the authorities were doing a good job and the few athletes that had strayed off the path were paying the price with bans. The rest of us, the ones who were following the rules and working hard, were now having suggestions and innuendo thrown at us by former athletes without any evidence whatsoever.

‘Back up, Carl Lewis,’ I thought. ‘Don’t talk.’

When I got into the press conference following the 200 metres final, I let fly.

‘I am going to say something controversial right now,’ I said. ‘Carl Lewis, I have no respect for him. The things he says about the track athletes is really downgrading. I think he’s just looking for attention really because nobody really talks much about him … It was really sad for me when I heard the other day what he was saying.’

It wasn’t all bad, though. There was plenty of positive attention from fans in the Village. But this time I loved it. In 2008 I had been freaked out by the sudden rush of adulation after my medals, but four years on I had grown used to the sight of people running towards me with cameras and scraps of paper as they screamed for autographs.

I had also grown accustomed to the fact that the Olympics was different – it was a little bit special. During the World Championships, nobody ever asked me for pictures or signatures in the Village because everybody there was a track and field dude. Everyone was cool around one another. But in the Olympics there were loads of other sports on show, represented by people who rarely got the same level of hype as the 100 metres, like in judo or fencing. When they saw me, those guys went crazy.

I remember after my 100 metres success, a few of us were chilling out in the dining room at the village when three girls from the Swedish handball team came over to talk. I knew nothing about the sport, so I didn’t recognise any of them, but they later introduced themselves as Gabriella Kain, Isabelle Gullden and Jamina Roberts. All of them seemed pretty nice. Maybe too nice: it later turned out they’d lost all five of their matches and had finished bottom in the group stages.

We hung out for a while, did a bit of talking in my bedroom, but that was it. Someone posted a couple of pictures we had taken on Twitter and the next day the media went crazy. There were headlines all over the place. People were making a big deal of it, insinuating something had happened between us, but it was all innocent fun. Think about it: if we really did anything together, why would we put it on Twitter? That wouldn’t make any sense. Why would I let everybody see what was going on? It was just talking, it was just chilling. They were cool people. They had to leave early in the morning, which was why they wanted to stay up and converse. It was a fun night, though. Hell, all of it had been fun – the races, the crowds, the buzz of London 2012. What could be better than establishing yourself as the superstar of world sport?

* Carl Lewis came for Jamaica twice. After Beijing he said, ‘Countries like Jamaica do not have a random [drugs testing] programme, so they can go months without being tested.’ Before London he was asked what he thought of me and responded: ‘It’s just … interesting. I watch the results like everyone else and wait … for time to tell.’