He might be the fastest man of all time, and not far off the coolest, but Usain Bolt was slow out of his starting blocks yesterday. As the minutes ticked away at a press conference called by his shoe sponsor at the Cigar and Jazz Wine Bar in downtown Beijing, the attendants spent their time fussing about with the armchairs on the stage.
First there were eight seats, then seven, then eight again, then nine and 10. It was rather like what the rest of the world had been doing behind the Lightning Bolt in the fast lanes of the Bird's Nest: rearranging the deckchairs while their Olympic dreams were sinking fast.
It took 68 minutes for the triple gold medal-winner and triple world record-breaker to finally appear. Playing up to the camera-clicking gallery, he ran through his moves, then flopped into a chair and breezed through every question like it was as routine as a... well, as an Olympic 100m final. Even the googly about the dreaded 'D' word was met with a nonchalant cover drive to the nearest palm tree.
Speaking of which, when it came to a simple query about his sporting heroes there was a corker of a reply for the English element in the audience. "I really love cricket," Bolt replied. "Chris Gayle, Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist. I also like Flintoff. I like aggressive players." So there you have it: Andrew Flintoff, by all accounts not the world's fastest at pedalling on a pedalo, with a fully paid-up fan club member who just happens to be the fastest thing on two legs.
Oh, and the googly? "We've been tested a lot," Bolt said, speaking not just for himself but for the all-conquering Jamaican sprint squad (women's 4 x 100m relay apart). "I was tested four times before running here. I had my urine and my blood tested. I was tested after all my competitions too. I've been tested so many times I've lost track. I have no problem with it. We work hard. We're clean. Any time they want to test us, it's fine."
As to the question of when Bolt might be tested on the track – truly tested by his fellow competitors – that is anyone's guess. Judging by the jaw-dropping events of the past week, the cartoonist in the International Herald Tribune had it just about right on Friday when he pictured the young man from Trelawny parish sitting in an armchair beyond the finish line with his gold spikes off and his feet up while his nominal rivals are still running their also-ran race. "What kept you?" he enquires of them.
Slumped in much the same fashion in the Cigar and Jazz Wine Bar, Bolt refuted the suggestion that he had enjoyed an armchair ride en route to his unprecedented haul of three golds (100m, 200m and 4 x 100m relay) and three world records (9.69sec, 19.30sec and 37.10sec. "It wasn't easy," he said. "I made it look easy, but it was hard." Yeah, right. But might we see the new king of the track break his records on the post-Games European circuit (he runs at 100m in Zurich on Friday, at 200m in Lausanne on 2 September and then at 100m in Brussels on 5 September)? "I think the 100 will be broken over and over and over," Bolt said. "I think the 200 will be hard to beat."
Michael Phelps might have returned home to Maryland with his Fort Knox collection of eight golds, but it is hard to look past the Lightning Bolt as the show-stealing act of the Games. "I don't compare myself to Michael Phillips," Bolt said, having made a name for himself in Beijing but not quite grasped that of the human swimming machine, seemingly. "I leave it to other people to say who is the ruler of the Olympics."
Would the spring-heeled Jamaican not agree, though, that he happens to be some kind of phenomenon? "I wouldn't say a phenomenon," Bolt replied. "Just a great athlete." With that, the great Freddie Flintoff fan upped from his chair, struck another bow and arrow pose for the cameras and took his leave. A class act to the end.