The Greatest: Usain Bolt

He's broken a host of sprinting records and thrust athletics back into the mainstream – all on a diet of chicken nuggets

Nick Harris
Saturday 22 August 2009 00:00

He runs, he wins, he obliterates another world record. Welcome to the life of Usain Bolt, aka Lightning Bolt, the fastest man who ever lived, and not your conventional athletics hero.

Certainly his exploits on a running track epitomise the Olympic motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius. Faster, higher, stronger.

At last year's Olympic Games in Beijing, the Jamaican, who turned 23 yesterday, became a global star by winning the 100m (at a canter), the 200m (with apparent ease), and a third gold medal in the 4 x 100m relay, all in world record times.

Nobody had performed that treble feat before and, in doing it, Bolt not only became Jamaica's most famous global export since Bob Marley, but also the flag-bearer for a revival of athletics as a credible, crowd-pulling sport.

This week he has raised his game again, from the merely staggering to the frankly awesome, to confirm himself as the supreme sprinter of this or any other age.

At the world championships in Berlin, he won the world 100m gold medal last Sunday in 9.58 seconds, knocking 0.11sec – a whopping margin – from the 9.69sec record he set in China.

Then on Thursday evening he followed that by winning the 200m gold in 19.19sec, again knocking 0.11sec from the 19.30sec record he set in China. "I can definitely say I didn't expect that," he said immediately afterwards. "I was tired but thought, 'What the heck, let's try'."

Some try. Experts are at a loss to predict how fast Bolt might run when he peaks – and he could continue getting faster for years. Some say 9.4 seconds or lower for 100m is inevitable, while 19 seconds for the 200m may not be beyond him.

To put this in context, the 200m world record before the Beijing Games was held by Michael Johnson, an American widely regarded as an all-time great, with four Olympic gold medals and eight world championship gold medals in his career. Johnson ran 19.32sec to win at the 1996 Olympics. That record stood for more than 12 years. Nobody came within even a third of a second of it until Bolt came along and blew it away.

Johnson, now a BBC pundit, was clearly impressed by Bolt's 19.19sec on Thursday evening, saying: "Unbelievable. I've never seen anything like this in my life and we might never see anything like it again."

Bolt himself opined, in jest, that he would very much like a knighthood from the Queen. For now, instead, he remains on course to be the sprint king of London at the 2012 Games.

His next record, though, could come as early as this evening, when he and three Jamaican team-mates will try to add the world relay crown to the 4 x 100m Olympic title they won in Beijing.

Yet, for all Bolt's jaw-dropping achievements, he remains remarkably grounded, quirkily so. A typical pre-race meal consists of Chicken McNuggets and yams. On the day, last summer, that he won the Olympic 100m title, he was asked what he'd eaten for breakfast.

"Ah, I never had breakfast," he replied. "Woke up at 11am. Sat around. Watched TV. Had lunch – some nuggets. Then went back to my room. Slept three hours. Got some more nuggets. Came down to the track."

When he won the 200m a few days later, he was again asked about his preparations. He'd slept until midday, he said, then called his masseur, but only so he could ask him to fetch more nuggets.

Bolt likes the fast life off the track too, driving his sports car in bare feet, often too quickly. In late April, he crashed his BMW M3 on a country road back home. His only injury was caused by thorns as he walked away. They were removed by minor surgery and he was well enough by 17 May to win a 150m street race in Manchester in 14.35seconds, the fastest time ever recorded.

This year's crash was not his first; he also wrecked a car in 2005 in an accident in which he suffered cuts to his face. Bolt freely admits that the incident happened during a period in his development when he partied too much and focused too little on his sport. That lack of application, combined with a string of injuries in his formative competitive years, helped to delay his breakthrough from prodigy to bona fide world-class runner.

Thus, it took five years to progress from being a 15-year-old junior world 200m champion in 2002 to winning his first significant senior individual prize, a silver medal in the 200m at the 2007 world championships in Osaka. From there, he launched himself to Olympic glory a year later, and new heights this week.

If his senior medal successes have come in a rush, in more ways than one, they did not spring from nowhere. Bolt racked up numerous national, regional and world marks as a junior and was unlucky at key times in suffering setbacks. At the 2004 Olympics, aged 18, a leg injury prevented him going beyond the first round in the 200m. At the 2005 world championships, he reached the final but pulled a muscle at the 150m mark and finished a distant eighth of eight.

When he did start clocking world records and the medals started to arrive in batches, so did the inevitable questions over doping. Was he using performance-enhancing drugs? He was asked that very question by a TV crew not long after he first broke the 100m record, in May 2008. He replied: "No, never will."

It is a line he has always maintained, and he has never been tainted with a positive drugs finding, unlike many others in his sport. Three of his five immediate predecessors as Olympic 100m champion later failed drugs tests, while five Jamaican team-mates recently tested positive for a stimulant, methylxanthine.

But there are sound physiological grounds for a degree of faith in Bolt. At 6ft 5in tall, he is a unique specimen, the tallest ever Olympic champion, a believable freak of nature. He does not look unnaturally muscular or "pumped". He runs freely, loose of limb and seemingly clear of conscience. That, at least, is the prayer of fans and administrators wanting a clean hero to erase too many memories of drug-soiled years.

Despite superstardom and burgeoning riches, Bolt remains close to his roots, and to his parents, Jennifer and Wellesley, who still live in a modest home in the rural Jamaican backwater of Trelawny where Bolt grew up.

His talents were obvious from an early age, although for a while he preferred cricket and might have become a fast bowler. His father urged him at secondary school age to choose athletics and he never looked back.

Recreationally he still watches cricket, and tennis, and basketball. "All sports in fact," he says. When he was in Manchester earlier this year, he visited the training ground of Manchester United, a football team whose results he follows.

His other major interests are music, specifically hip-hop, and dancing. Famously he likes to jig around the track after a big win. In China, his lap-of-honour routine was called Nuh Linga, taught to him by a Jamaican street dancer, Ding Dong, who heads a famous local troupe, the Ravers Clavers.

Critics did suggest for a while that his post-race antics could be interpreted as disrespectful to rivals, but Bolt's mother, Jennifer, insists his playful behaviour is part of his make-up. "Usain likes to clown around. That's how he plays with me and with his girlfriend. It's not unusual to find him wrestling with his dad. He's having fun."

Bolt has known his romantic partner, Mizicann "Mitzy" Evans, a 20-year-old accountancy student, since they were children, and they have been an item for almost six years. "His winning personality attracted me to him," she said last year, insisting success has not changed him. "The same way you see him behaving on the track is exactly how he is. Always happy, always wanting to make everybody around him laugh."

A life in brief

Born: 21 August 1986, Trelawny, Jamaica.

School: Waldensia Primary, then William Knibb Memorial High School, Trelawny

Career: Had his first success on the international stage aged 15, in 2002, winning the 200m at the world junior championships. Injuries and other distractions meant he did not win his first major senior medal until taking the silver in the 200m at the 2007 world championships in Osaka. Individual highlights since include winning the 100m and 200m (both with world records) at the Beijing Olympics, and winning the 100m and 200m golds (again, with world records) at this week's world championships in Berlin.

Family: Bolt has been with his girlfriend, Mizicann 'Mitzy' Evans, a 20-year-old accountancy student, since 2004, when he was 17 and she was 15.

He says: "I just blew my mind and blew the world's mind." – After winning the 200m Olympic gold in Beijing.

They say: "Usain likes to clown around... It's not unusual to find him wrestling with his dad." – Bolt's mother, Jennifer.

"He performed like he was from outer space." – Jamaican PM, Bruce Golding, after Bolt's 100m win in Berlin.

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