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

Chapter 9. Go Time

To understand just how unexpected my success in the 100 metres was, check this: when I’d first raced the distance a year previously, Coach and myself hadn’t even thought about the Olympics. Not a chance. The 200 was our only focus. But suddenly things had got serious, people were talking me up as a potential gold medallist, and with a world record under my belt there was no way I couldn’t run the 100 in the Olympics. I was The Fastest Man in the World. How would it have looked to the world had I not run in the Olympics? Pretty damn stupid, probably.

The decision to compete was an easy one. More hype had built up around me, and breaking the world record meant that track and field fans were watching my every step. They were saying, ‘Yo, this is serious. This guy is really starting to up his game in the 100 now. We gotta watch him.’

People were looking at me to see what more I could achieve, and after qualifying for the Olympics through the national trials in both the 100 and 200, I was ringing bells with everyone in the sport. There were more interviews, more autograph requests, and there was more talk.

The funny thing for me, though, was that I felt a different buzz whenever the word ‘Olympics’ was mentioned, whether that was around the house, at Racers Track Club, or if I was chilling with friends. I felt psyched, a sensation I hadn’t experienced the last time around. But there was also a realisation that Athens and 2004 hadn’t been my moment, I’d been too young. Like Coach had said, athletes have their days of glory. Tyson, Asafa, Maurice Greene and Donovan Bailey had enjoyed theirs. Beijing was going to be mine, because I was reaping the rewards of all the hard work throughout the season, all the agony, sweat and vomit at the University of the West Indies track. Everyone could see I was in peak condition. Pops had even come to watch me train a few times at Racers, but in the end he couldn’t bear to look any more. It broke him up to see me taking so much hell.

Despite the pain that Coach had put me through, the pair of us were tight – really tight. Our relationship was now like that of a father and a son. The issues we’d worked through had brought us together, and my injuries and strength had been managed with a scientific genius I couldn’t get my head around. He had worked out a way of maximising my power without blowing the muscles in my back and legs, and with his help I had improved my racing technique.

To hell with the scoliosis: every time we had come up against a snag in his programme, like my cramped hamstring in Helsinki, or my disappointing finish in Osaka, he’d found a way to fix it. When my mind threatened to derail me, as it had done when the cussing rang out in Kingston’s National Stadium, he’d levelled me out. As predicted, Coach’s three-year plan had primed me for the Olympics, both mentally and physically.

There’s a cool picture of the pair of us, taken just before the start of the Games. It’s around my house somewhere. It shows us chilling at the track, laughing, debating something – the NBA most probably, or maybe a silly topic like ‘What’s the greatest invention: the plane or the cell phone?’ (Coach: ‘The phone, Bolt. Unless you ever want to leave Jamaica.’) In the photo I’ve got my shirt off, and every time I look at it, I think, ‘Wow, those days’, because I looked fine then. The muscles were strong, and power quivered through my body. I was on a peak, and Beijing could not have come around quickly enough.

I’d also found a good groove, I was running hot. Without too much sweat I had set the fastest 200 metres time of the year so far during a meet in Ostrava, Czech Republic, and I broke the Jamaican national record again, this time in Athens, with a time of 19.67 seconds. But an athlete had to cool his impatience sometimes, because it was important not to give away too much information during the build-up to a major meet. When the season had first started, Coach entered me into as many races as he thought I could handle. With a month to go before my first heat, he decided I’d competed enough. It was time to prepare in my own way, away from watching eyes.

‘We don’t need to run any more races,’ he said. ‘Let’s keep everyone guessing.’

In a way, I thought of it as being like a bluffing tactic in a game of dominoes: showing a strong hand too early might affect me further down the line in China. If a 100 metres star had improved his starts or drive phase, why would he announce it to the rest of the world in a race so close to the Olympics? It would only encourage his rivals to step up. I didn’t want that – I knew that the element of surprise was a huge tactical advantage, even for someone who had just broken a world record.

Meanwhile, I’d been tracking Tyson’s progress in America. I guessed my victory in New York would have fired him up and, at first glance, his form looked pretty strong. In the months following my record-breaking 100, he recorded a wind-assisted* 9.68 seconds performance in the US Olympic trials. But then disaster struck and he injured a hamstring during the 200 final at the same event. That was a major problem for any sprinter, though by the sounds of things Tyson was probably as worried about my ability as his busted muscles. During one magazine interview, he told a reporter that it looked as if my knees had been flying past his face when I’d scorched to victory at the Icahn Stadium. That was some mark to leave on a rival.

With the year’s results written down on paper, I knew where I stood with everyone in the field. On the eve of the Games, I could guess roughly what was going to happen in the Beijing 100 metres based on what had gone before:

I’d beaten Tyson.

Tyson had won in the US trials.

Asafa had beaten me, but I’d let him have it.

I was going to beat the pair of them.

I was that confident that when my plane to Beijing taxied on to the runway from London, where I had been staying for my European races, I kicked back and pulled out my cell phone so I could leave a message. This one was for myself. I flipped the lid on the handset and, as I stared into the screen, my plans for the 2008 Games were laid out for history.

‘Yo, I’m going to Beijing,’ I said. ‘I’m going to run fast, I’m going to win three gold medals, I’m going to come home a hero.’

I was looking forward to watching that video when I returned home.

***

Those first few days in Beijing were like the calm before a huge, tropical storm. I walked around the Olympic village and chilled with the other athletes in the cafeteria. Nobody really bothered me. One or two guys might have recognised my face if ever I went out for a stroll, and there was occasionally a nod of acknowledgement, or some cool glance from across the street, but that was it. There wasn’t any real hassle. I seemed like an anonymous guy for The World’s Fastest Man.

I quite liked travelling to Asia, because the people there had always given me love. It had first started during the World Champs in Osaka. Kids had shouted out my name whenever I got off the team bus, and they would always ask for autographs and photos. Even the media were nice and friendly. Whenever I was interviewed by a TV station or the national press, the reporters gave me a neat gift afterwards, like a little camera or a fancy T-shirt.

It wasn’t all cool, though. I’d been warned that the facilities would not be suitable for a guy of my size, and when I’d travelled to Japan in 2007, even going to the shower was a struggle. The nozzle came in at waist height and getting into the damn thing became an athletic event in itself. The cubicle was the size of a coffin and I couldn’t squeeze into it. I don’t think I washed my back properly for the entire fortnight.

I also found Asian food a little odd. It didn’t agree with me at all, and when we first arrived in Beijing, Jamaica’s coaching staff gave the athletes a strict warning not to go for meals outside the Olympic Village. Apparently, China’s authorities had warned the local restaurants that there were some meats that could not be sold to tourists, under any circumstances. One of those was dog, and I definitely didn’t want to eat dog, or any other delicacy that might mess with my stomach on the eve of an Olympic championship.

Instead, I made three visits to the Village restaurant every day. I tried a little bit of chicken here, a bit of noodles there, but I didn’t like a lot of it. I’m a Jamaican, I loved my jerk pork, rice, yam and dumplings. Sweet and sour chicken did not cut it for me. Some of the local food had too much flavour, some of it had no flavour at all, and I had worry about all of it. The first few days were a struggle.

‘Forget this,’ I thought one morning, as I looked at yet another serving bowl of brightly coloured food. ‘I’m getting some chicken nuggets.’

At first I ate a box of 20 for lunch, then another for dinner. The next day I had two boxes for breakfast, one for lunch and then another couple in the evening. I even grabbed some fries and an apple pie to go along with it. When I got hungry at 3 a.m. that night, I woke my room-mate, the decathlete Maurice Smith, and the pair of us went out for another box.

There’s an assumption that junk food isn’t available in an Olympic complex, that we all eat super-healthy meals, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. There were chain restaurants everywhere in Beijing, mainly so all the workers could eat (not just the athletes), and by the following lunchtime, when I’d started my third box of the day, my team-mates were pointing and laughing. They couldn’t believe how much deep-fried chicken I was putting away, but the 100 metres hurdler Brigitte Foster-Hylton had seen enough and decided to make a stand.

‘Usain, you cannot eat so many nuggets!’ she yelled. ‘Eat some vegetables, man. You’re gonna make yourself ill.’

I pulled a face, I was fussy. ‘Ugh, I don’t know …’

Brigitte grabbed me. She led my ass around the village restaurant and picked out all kinds of greens and vegetables for me to try, but none of them tasted any good. My attitude must have been so frustrating because, out of desperation, she then handed me a white plastic sachet of Thousand Island dressing. Wow, when I poured it on to my salad for the first time, the food came to life with flavour. I drenched it in the stuff, and from then on, I was able to mix Brigitte’s greens with a box or two of nuggets. It was a healthy hit with every meal.

There was some scary maths at work, though. On average, I devoured around 100 nuggets every 24 hours. I was there for 10 days, which meant that by the time the Games ended, I must have eaten around 1,000 chunks of chicken. Man, I should have got a gold medal for all that chowing down.

The food was my only worry, though, because on the track I was sharp. Coach had set me some clear rules for the 100 metres heats, just as he had done in the 2007 World Champs. I was to finish in first or second place in every race without over-exerting myself. He didn’t want me to blow a muscle in the early rounds, especially if I could cruise through quite easily. For each heat I followed his instructions. I made a quick start and chilled. In every 100, I finished in the top two, even though I was holding back most of the time.

I kept an eye on my rivals all the way. Tyson’s races were good, and he didn’t look like a man carrying a hamstring injury at first, not that I was overly concerned. Whenever I watched him compete, I remembered Ricardo Geddes, Keith Spence and my long-standing mantra: if I beat you in a big meet, you’re not going to beat me again. That’s how I saw the situation in Beijing, and nothing had changed despite the higher stakes. I’d defeated Tyson in New York, so I knew the rule would stand fast. I had the mental edge.

It showed, too. My semi-final was comfortable, which was unusual for an Olympics because the good racers often got bunched together at that stage and there might be three, even four top runners in one semi, with the first four spots up for grabs. That meant the margins for error were small. Any mistake from a strong athlete might allow an outsider into the qualifying places. Not me, though. I followed Coach’s instructions and got to the final without any stress.

But there was a shock around the corner. Minutes after my race, it was announced that Tyson had finished fifth in the second semi-final. His time had been poor, he’d only clocked 10.05 seconds, and my closest rival was heading out of the Olympics. I knew it would have been impossible for Tyson to operate at 100 per cent, because he was still working his way back from a tight injury. Racing hard in Beijing would have been a tough call, especially as the knock had taken place so close to the Games. Now it had caught up with him.

Some athletes might have been cheered by that news, but I was disappointed. I wanted Tyson to be in the final – fully fit, too. In my head, I needed to beat the greatest athletes on earth; if I was going to win gold, I had to do it knowing that I’d stepped up in the strongest field possible. At Tyson’s press conference he told the media that his time had nothing to do with his damaged hamstring, but there was no disguising the sadness. His 2008 Olympics dream was over. Mine had been cranked up a notch.

***

The 100 metres final was due to take place a couple of hours after the semis, so maintaining focus was my first challenge. Often, before a major final, the biggest problem for an athlete is the mental crash. The mind can overtire itself by focusing too hard on the job ahead, but that was never going to be a problem for me. I was too chilled. I warmed down, just enough to keep my muscles ticking over, before sitting down on the track and relaxing with Coach and Ricky. We laughed, talked about cars, the NBA, girls. It seemed like only 20 minutes had passed, but it must have been closer to 90, because my masseur, Eddie, was soon shouting out that it was time to warm up. The race was due to start.

As I stretched and prepared, Coach stood over me for every flex. Eddie mobilised my back, hips and ankles. Scoliosis seemed like a distant memory and my hamstrings were like tightly coiled springs, full of power.

I did a light session on the warm-up track with several stride-outs – a loose, but fast run – and I could sense the heat flooding back into my legs and arms. My lungs felt big. Rather than pumping on the brakes at the end of every sprint, I allowed my body to gently decrease in speed. Every part of my physique felt energised and smooth.

I looked across the lanes and watched Asafa doing his practice starts. Pow! Pow! Pow! He was killing it. But Coach had seen enough from me – he thought I was warmed enough.

‘You sure, Coach?’ I said. ‘Asafa’s doing more starts. Think I should run some more, too?’

Coach shook his head. ‘No, Bolt, your body is fully warmed. You don’t need to worry.’

He reached out a hand and pulled me up off the track. ‘A’ight, let’s go,’ he said. ‘You’re ready.’

Man, with that news I felt 20 feet tall – I was ready. I had come to believe in Coach so much that even the slightest vote of confidence, like those two little words, were enough to give me an extra shot of belief. Adrenaline surged through my veins, some nerves too, but there was not a doubt in my mind. I had done the work and I knew that if I executed on the track, there wasn’t a man on the planet who could take me down.

I was chilled. Inside the call room, I cracked jokes and tried to make the other Caribbean dudes happy. My bounce was seriously high. Coach gave me one last pat on the back to set me going, but I was so hyped up that I decided to fool around one last time. A camera was trained on my face, the images were being beamed around the world and on to a huge TV screen in the arena. As his palm landed squarely on my shoulder blades, I threw myself forward with a scream, falling to the floor, my face screwed up in mock agony. The camera zoomed in on me. To the watching world Coach had injured the 100 metres world record holder during the build-up to the biggest sporting event on earth.

When I glanced up, I could see that he was pissed, and moments later his phone buzzed. It was a text from a friend in the crowd. They had seen the footage on the big screen in the stadium and were freaking out.

‘WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO TO USAIN BOLT?!’ it read.

I couldn’t stop myself from laughing, I was so relaxed. My mindset was perfect.

Still, no joking could distract me from the sensory overload of an Olympic final. Wow, when I got out on the track the crowd were cheering, flashbulbs popped. The noise was deafening. I suddenly understood how a performer like Jay-Z must have felt whenever he walked into a stacked arena. The Bird’s Nest Stadium rocked, the bleachers were rammed and I could tell from experience that the sound and the colours were exactly what I needed to spark me off even more. The crowd’s buzz was like a powerful energy drink to me, and I soaked up every last drop of it.

Not everyone felt the same way, though. Asafa didn’t look good at all and I could tell by his eyes that he was feeling nervous. The tension was eating him up inside and that got me worried. My first thought was to help him out, because that’s how I rolled – he was a fellow countryman, so I wanted him to relax and be at his best, though I know a lot of athletes wouldn’t have shown that much concern for an Olympic rival.

I was different. I had love for Asafa, I respected the guy so much. Everything he had done for track and field at home was a gift to me, and he had set a big standard for Jamaica’s athletic elite to follow. Without his world records, athletes like myself wouldn’t have aimed so high. For the last few years we’d attempted to live up to his speeds, to run even faster than he had, though I was the only one who had made it. I knew that without Asafa’s times, the world’s fastest 100 would still have been 9.79 seconds.

I also understood the stress that he was going through, the national pressure as a Jamaican, because at home they loved Asafa, definitely more than they loved me. He was their golden boy. They were desperate for him to come home with a major medal because he was such a nice person. But that love was killing him. It was adding worry to the man, and he didn’t have the experience to shut it off.

I had killed those demons at the World Juniors in 2002, but Asafa hadn’t really gone through the same system in Jamaica as me. He’d only raced in a couple of Champs, but there was nothing bigger for him at the junior level. As a kid he hadn’t faced the pressures of competing in an international meet like the World Juniors on a regular basis. Instead, he’d started as a pro and dominated from there. That meant that when the pressures came as a track and field star in major championships, he couldn’t deal with the attention and stress. That’s what I felt anyway. In Beijing, those big-race nerves had hit him again and he couldn’t handle it. He looked frozen.

I couldn’t stand it. I caught him as he walked to the start.

‘Yo, let’s do this,’ I said, trying to hype him up. ‘This is going to be a good race. Jamaica, one and two. Let’s go. Come on …’

He laughed, we bumped fists, and at first I thought my conversing had worked him up. But as we ran through our stride-outs and final warm-ups, I watched as the flicker of fear returned to his face. I knew right then that Asafa was not winning an Olympic gold.

‘Ah, crap,’ I thought. ‘There’s nothing I can do for him now.’

I focused on my own game. The announcer called my name and I started doing crazy stuff. Maurice had trimmed my hair with some clippers the night before, so I rubbed the top of my head and ruffled my sideburns like it was the coolest style ever. People in the crowd were laughing hard. I was so relaxed, I just knew that I was taking first spot. And then the words rang out like an alarm clock.

‘On your marks …’

The crowd fell deathly silent.

This is it.

Deep breath.

I got to my line.

Let’s do this.

I settled into my blocks.

Please, God, let’s get this start right. Let me get this start. Let me get this start …

‘Set!’

Come on …

Bang!

The gun went.

Man, a lot can go through a sprinter’s mind over 100 metres, and I’ve talked crap to myself in every race I’ve ever run in. That might sound crazy to a lot of people because the metres flash by in just over nine and a half seconds, ten on a really bad day for me, but in that time I can think about a hell of a lot of stuff: like my start as I burst out of the line, especially if I’ve left the blocks too late. I think about who’s doing what ahead of me in the lanes, or whether someone behind is doing something stupid, like trying to beat me. Seriously, I talk a lot of garbage in my head when I’m tearing down the track at top speed.

Pow!

I burst from the blocks, but Richard Thompson, the Trinidad and Tobago sprinter, was in the lane next to me and he got a start like nobody else in the history of the Olympics.

Crap! How did he do that?! Now I can’t see where I am in the race, because he’s blocking my view of Asafa on the other side.

I kept my eye on him all the way, extending my legs out of the drive phase. I made one, two, three steps and then I stumbled – I made a bad step and rocked to my right – but I recovered quickly and maintained my cool. I’d been through races before where I’d suffered a bad start, or a shaky first 20 metres, so I didn’t freak.

Like Stockholm, yo. Remember Stockholm. Do not panic. Get through your drive phase and chill. Chill, chill, chill. Thompson hasn’t pulled away. He’s right there in front of you …

I glanced across the line.

He’s the only dude leading the pack.

And then there was me.

Keep chilling.

I could feel my momentum building, my longer stride taking me past Thompson, and once I’d cleared him, I could see the rest of the line. I did a quick check – I was ahead, but there was no Asafa.

Where the hell is Asafa?

Everybody else was there, bunched in. Thompson, Walter Dix (USA), Churandy Martina (Netherlands Antilles), Michael Frater (Jamaica), Marc Burns (Trinidad and Tobago) and the other American runner, Darvis Patton, but still no Asafa. That seemed stupid to me, he was supposed to be there.

This is kinda weird. He should be around …

At 75, 80 metres I peeped again. I say peeped, but I actually looked back over my shoulder. I needed to know where he was.

Where are you, bredder? You’re the man that’s supposed to be doing well here now Tyson’s not playing. What are you doing? Do I need to run harder? Can I chill?

Then it dawned on me.

Oh crap, oh crap … I’m gonna win this race!

Talk about losing it. I went crazy-assed wild even though I was still ten metres from the line. I threw my hands up in the air and acted all mad. I pounded my chest because I knew that nobody was going to catch me. It was done, I was the Olympic champ and all the work I’d suffered with Coach had paid off – all those laps of the track had taken me to the tape in first place.

He told me I could do it. He told me I was ready …

Chaos followed me afterwards, just as it had in New York. I turned around and saw Asafa finishing in fifth, the other runners trying to catch me as I hurtled around the track, one finger pointing to the heavens. Richard Thompson was going crazy too, dancing and pulling all kinds of moves. Anyone would have thought that he’d won the gold medal, the way he was acting so hyped. Later that night, he told a TV reporter that he had won the race.

‘I took first spot,’ he said. ‘Usain was off, running his own thing. I won the normal 100 metres final.’

I ran to the bleachers. A mob of photographers surrounded me, all of them sticking their cameras into my face as they tried to capture the perfect shot. I pulled my arm back like an archer drawing an arrow from his bow and aimed skywards – it was a mime, a bolt of lightning for my first Olympic gold.† The whole place exploded with flashbulbs, there were so many people around me. I was being mobbed by fans, but through the noise I heard Mom calling my name. I saw her face in the crowd – she looked so proud. I went over to her.

‘VJ! VJ!’ she cried, pulling me in close and handing over a Jamaican flag. Mr Peart was there too. I took a step back. My heart felt like it was going to burst out of my chest.

‘Hey, that’s number one,’ I said.

I wanted to run around the track again – I needed to see Coach, Ricky and my friends – but one guy kept pulling at my vest. He was shouting, waving, and at first I couldn’t hear him through all the noise. But then his voice hit me like a Muhammad Ali hook to the jaw.

‘Usain, come on!’ he said. ‘You’ve got to have your picture taken with the clock and the new world record.’

What the hell?!

I hadn’t considered my time for one moment. Like with Tyson and the Grand Prix in New York, my focus had been clear: win first, worry about the clock second. I hadn’t even looked at the Olympic timer, a massive screen at the end of the track, but now I did, and there, next to the TV image of my face as I crossed the line – all joy, sweat, a loud scream of celebration – was the time.

9.69 seconds.

A new world record.

Damn!

***

I can’t remember what I was thinking at that exact moment. What goes through any athlete’s head when he breaks his own world record in an Olympic final? ‘Wow’, probably, plus all sorts of emotions that he can’t really recall. But I was surprised, because a gold medal had been the target, not my name atop a list of impressive, landmark times and superstar athletes.

The strangest thing, I guess, was that I wasn’t blown away by it. In recent months, there had been a realisation that I’d found peace with being The Fastest Man on Earth. Since New York my attitude to it had been, well, indifferent – whatever. Sure, I knew it was a huge achievement, but I wasn’t a fan of the term and it had dawned on me that being an Olympic champ was so much bigger than being The Fastest Man on Earth.

My theory for that was clear: at any time someone could run faster. A guy like Tyson could show up at a meet just weeks later, catch the perfect wind, pop a great start, run the race of his career and better my time. I might have been sitting there in Kingston, chilling, only to answer my phone and hear Coach say, ‘Usain, there’s been a meet in Doha and you’re not going to believe this … Tyson just ran 9.50 seconds. You’re no longer The Fastest Man on Earth.’ With that one phone call, the title was gone.

I understood that because it had happened to Asafa. He had probably watched the New York Grand Prix on TV at home, cheering me on against Tyson. He wouldn’t have expected me to win – no way. In his mind he’d have thought, ‘Usain beating Tyson? Forget that.’ Then in front of his eyes the world record was mine. All of a sudden his title had left him.

Gone.

Over.

Goodnight.

But making permanent history was another matter, and that’s what I was happy about. By winning gold in the 100 metres final in Beijing I’d made the title of Olympic champion mine, for ever. I had the crown, an absolute accolade that nobody could scratch from the books. Not Asafa, not Wallace, not Tyson, not anybody. I was aware that the title of The Fastest Man on Earth had first come in New York, but it could go at any time. More importantly, I’d realised that records were the icing, but the Olympic gold medals were serious cake. Now I was hungry. You better believe I wanted more.

* A strong tailwind can be a help to an athlete. The rules stated that a maximum tail wind of 2.0 m/s was allowed for a world record to stand. Tyson’s race was over that limit.

† The idea originally came from a friend of mine, a dancer in Jamaica. I’d made a deal that if I won the 100 I would bust some crazy dance move. It was called ‘To Di World’, and I put my own spin on it by pulling a shape where I aimed my arms skywards.