There was something different about Usain Bolt yesterday as he sat in the basement room of a hotel in the western suburbs of Rome, talking about his looming return to competitive life in the fast lane. More than one thing, actually.
For a start, there was the subtle Mohawk cut of his hair. Then there was the Azzurri colour of the Italian national football team shirt on his back. "You look like Mario Balotelli," someone suggested.
It was not the greatest compliment to pay a Manchester United fan, someone so devoted to the Red Devil cause that he will be heading from the Italian capital, where he runs his first race of 2011 tomorrow night – the 100 metres in the Golden Gala IAAF Diamond League meeting at the Stadio Olimpico – to London for Saturday's Champions' League final. Still, the world's fastest man took the observation in his stride, in characteristic good humour.
Asked what he felt about being compared to a Manchester City player, Bolt laughed and replied: "Balotelli, he's a great player. He's a little bit aggressive but he's a great player, so it's OK."
Bolt is the polar opposite of aggressive and not just a great player in his chosen sport but one of the all-time greats. He's certainly the fastest athlete of all time, but the stunning 9.58sec that the 24-year-old Jamaican clocked for the 100m at the World Championships in Berlin dates back to the summer before last.
In 2011, the new-look Bolt – not just with his little Mohawk but also with a leaner yet more muscular 6ft 5in frame – is a man on a mission. "Last season wasn't my best," he said. "It was kind of a down time for me. This season is back to business. I'm really focused and ready. I'm going out there to prove to the world that I'm still the best. But for the first time I'm slightly nervous – I haven't run in so long."
School has been out for the "Lightning Bolt" since 6 August last year, the night he was upstaged in the 1912 Olympic Stadium in Stockholm. First there was a stretch limousine pulling up halfway down the home straight and Alice Cooper stepping out to declare: "Let the games begin." Then, when the gun fired to start the 100m final in the DN Galan Diamond League meeting, there was Tyson Gay stretching away in front of a patently out-of-sorts Bolt.
The Jamaican was a pale shadow of the invincible speed merchant who tore up the world record books at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and at those 2009 World Championships in Berlin. An Achilles tendon injury had taken its toll, together with a lack of motivation in a summer season bereft of the big goal of a global championship.
An examination in Munich by Dr Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, the celebrated German guru of the sports medicine world, also showed a problem in the lower back, a tightness that was restricting Bolt's ability to generate power with his huge, raking stride. It was nothing new.
To the wider world, it might have seemed that Bolt had shot out of the blue in 2008 – when he smashed the 100m world record in New York and Beijing and claimed Michael Johnson's supposedly untouchable global 200m mark – but he was simply realising the phenomenal potential he had shown as a 15-year-old world junior (Under-20) champion in 2002. In between times, his progress had been hamstrung by a succession of injuries all related to the congenital spinal condition that re-emerged in the aftermath of his season-ending defeat in Stockholm last summer.
Since birth Bolt has suffered from scoliosis (as in the Greek skolios, or crooked), a curvature that can distort the spine into a pronounced S-shape and cause all manner of back and hamstring problems. It affected him in 2004 when he was expected to make a big impact as a 17-year-old at the Athens Olympics; he was knocked out in the first-round heats of the 200m. It was the same at the World Championships in Helsinki in 2005; he reached the final of the 200m but limped home last in 26.27sec – yes, a school sports day-ish 26.27sec. Ditto in 2006, when he was forced to miss the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.
Bolt has been making regular trips to see Müller-Wohlfahrt in an effort to keep his back in working order. He made another this week, his third of the year, en route from Jamaica to Italy. "I did stop in Munich to make sure I was OK," Bolt said. "The doctor gave me the go-ahead. I wouldn't say I'm in perfect shape but I'm in good shape. I'm looking forward to racing and competing at my best."
Bolt admitted last week that he had suffered "a small setback" in his preparation for the track season but insisted yesterday that his scoliosis was not a major problem. "I just make sure I have my regular check-ups," he said. "I keep it in check."
To help do that, Bolt has adapted his training to include more strength and core-stability work, with the result that he has lost 10lb in weight yet gained more muscle. "I've been doing a lot of work strength-wise, core-wise," he said. "That's why I might look a little bit bigger. I've got more muscles."
For good measure, Bolt flexed his right biceps. The question is: can he deliver a knockout sprint performance tomorrow night in a Roman arena that has already witnessed one notable 100m run by a Jamaican-born speed merchant?
In the World Championship final in the Stadio Olimpico in 1987, Ben Johnson blitzed Carl Lewis and took a 10th of a second off Calvin Smith's world record with a time of 9.83sec. It was only after Johnson did something similar in the 1988 Olympic final in Seoul, on that occasion lowering the world record to 9.79sec, that the Canadian athlete originally from Falmouth – Falmouth, Jamaica – was found to have been charged up in both races on anabolic steroids.
Johnson's tainted times have long been deleted from the results books but something like his Roman run of 24 years ago, 9.83sec, would represent a more than satisfactory return for Bolt. Last summer his fastest 100m time was 9.82sec.
Only time and the tide of the 2011 season, which climaxes with the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, in August, will tell whether the Lightning Bolt can strike as quickly as he did when he clocked his 9.58sec in Berlin two years ago.
Asked whether he had a target time in mind for tomorrow night, Bolt replied: "I couldn't say. I normally would have, but I am blank. I don't know what time I can run. I am just hoping for the best. I have been going well in training so I am hoping for a good time."
As it happens, Bolt is hoping for a good time all round tomorrow night. "I would like to say something," he announced, as his press conference was about to break up. "I had a dream last night. I dreamt that I went out in Rome on Thursday and I found a very beautiful Italian. We got married and we lived happily ever after."
Failing that, "a 2-1 win" for his beloved United on Saturday night would be a dream result for the Balotelli lookalike.