For Usain Bolt all roads lead from Rome. On Thursday night the world's fastest man will begin his competitive preparations proper to reclaim the one crown he cannot currently perch on his head and they will take him from the Olympic Stadium in the Italian capital on a journey to another former home of the Games in Moscow two months down the line.
He will head for the World Championships via a route to stretch the SatNav, stopping off in Oslo, Ostrava, Kingston, Paris and London to run a mix of 100m, 200m and relays – tomorrow it's the 100m – but the destination is very definitely Moscow. Bolt wants his world title back, the one he squandered so unexpectedly and shockingly when he leapt a moment too soon from his blocks two years ago in Daegu.
London is not the only city pondering a coronation at the moment. Rome is dotted with posters of Bolt dressed as a king, complete with large crown, a string of medals and, oddly, green trainers. He has brought his smile with him – this is a man who spreads smiles, today joking and performing happily for the photographers in between questions. They love him here, they love him everywhere, but this Diamond League event has also become his serious starting point of choice for the new season and one in which for the last two years he has laid down a brisk marker.
In 2012 here he ran 9.76 seconds, following a troubled opening to Olympic year. This year has begun similarly with injury niggles and an underwhelming run at a low-key meet in the Cayman Islands where he failed to break 10 seconds. Post-Olympic malaise is a familiar diagnosis but Bolt is having none of it.
"I will treat it just like the Olympics because it is the World Championships so I will be focused, I will be ready," he insisted. "I am looking forward to the challenge. I strive on the challenges. Everybody has got to bring their A game to the [World] Championships because running against the best for me is always a joy, to show the world I'm the best. And I always want to be the best."
Winning back the world title is a major goal and offers an important focal point for that post-Olympic year when those who found success in London can struggle to move forward, a problem that could affect a man who has six Olympic gold medals, the most coveted world record and the rest of his speedily acquired sporting bling hanging around his neck.
Bolt claimed he has plenty to look forward to and there is no secret to be made of his ambition, what he wants, indeed expects, this year and the next and on to the Rio Games in 2016, which will be his last. "I definitely have goals," he said. "I have accomplished all my dreams but I do have goals that I make myself. I have four more years in this sport so now it is about dominating for those four years. I am looking forward to the next Olympics to doing something that has never been done before. That is one of my biggest goals but for the next four years I want to dominate the sport, show people that it is possible to go year in, year out just being the best."
Three more gold medals in Rio would take his total level with Carl Lewis and the flying Finn Paavo Nurmi. But more strikingly it would move the already unique double double he achieved in London, defending both his sprint titles, to an extraordinary level.
He will celebrate his 30th birthday on the last day of the Rio Games; Linford Christie won in Barcelona in 1992 aged 32, the oldest winner of the race by four years. Yohan Blake, the youngest of his challengers, has three years on him and Bolt predicts the emergence of another Jamaican crop of sprinters over the next couple of years. "But," he added with obligatory grin, "I would like to say I will still be beating them."
His more immediate challenge will come from Justin Gatlin, who ran 9.88sec in Eugene last Saturday, and has arrived in Rome bristling with confidence. The 31-year-old American, who took bronze in London and has twice served doping bans, has started the season well and accompanied it by talking up his chances of catching Bolt. It brought a shrug followed by an enigmatic initial response when the Jamaican was asked about the man who wants to be king.
"Over the years there are many things that people could say about Justin Gatlin," said Bolt. "He's proven himself this season but I never try to worry about one athlete. My focus is on the championship, one-off races are never the biggest thing for me. I always go to the championship and prove myself. He has said a lot this season already but a lot of athletes talk. For me it's when you show up and prove yourself to be the best at the World Championship. That's what matters. I'm not really worried."
The only worry he could locate was when asked a question about Sir Alex Ferguson stepping aside at Manchester United. "I must say it was a stressful day for me," said Bolt, that smile never far away. He worried that with his "friend" gone as manager he had work to do to convince David Moyes he will one day be worth a spot in the United side (an ongoing Bolt joke). Asked to respond to criticism of him having posted pictures online of him posing with a friend's clothing brand that promotes a so-called "cannabis culture", he brushed it aside. "They tried to make a big deal of it. I'm not going to be stressed by that. I know who I am and what I've represented over the years."
For all his louche disdain about Gatlin and the rest – and if anybody is entitled to a bit of louche disdain it is Bolt, as he pointed out he beat them all in London last summer – the Jamaican has had a slow start to 2013.
He pulled out of a race in Kingston with hamstring troubles – "injury comes, injury goes" – and then when he did make the track in the Caymans his time of 10.09sec was the slowest he has ever run outside a heat. His talk that "one-off" races mean little in the long term is unarguable but it may also represent a defence mechanism. This is a significant test for Bolt and any Bolt defeat is a significant moment.
"I did have a bad performance [in the Caymans] but we went back to the drawing board and we figured what went wrong," said Bolt. "We have worked on it for the past couple of weeks and are confident it is sorted. It's a long season, I'm looking forward to racing it. Last season I started badly also and we did well. We will work past this. I'm feeling great. I've been doing lot of work on my speed endurance the last couple of weeks. Everything is coming together. I'm happy where I'm at and my coach is happy. I'm looking forward to going out there and doing my best."
And his best, laying that moment of jumping the gun aside – but not forgetting its place in directing the Bolt story – has so far proved streets ahead of the rest, as they and he remain all too aware.
Bolt roll of honour
2008 (Beijing, China) 100m Gold; 200m Gold; 4x100m relay Gold
2012 (London, Eng) 100m Gold; 200m Gold; 4x100m relay Gold
2007 (Osaka, Japan) 200m Silver; 4x100m relay Silver
2009 (Berlin, Germany) 100m Gold; 200m Gold; 4x100m relay Gold
2011 (Daegu, South Korea) 200m Gold; 4x100m relay GoldReuse content