When Esquire met Usain Bolt
Given the niggling injuries he had suffered lately, and the rise and rise of challenger to the sprinting crown (and previously convicted doper) Justin Gatlin, it was said before yesterday’s 2015 World Athletics Championships, that if Usain Bolt managed to claim gold in the 100m final this year, it would be his greatest achievement to date. Yet, at the Birds Nest stadium in Beijing (the scene of his 2008 World Record nonetheless) Bolt once again silenced any doubters, posting a time of 9.79 seconds, beating Gatlin by a mere o.o1 second gap.
Here’s what happened when Esquire met the man they’re now dubbing ‘the saviour of athletics
He looked into the camera and clasped his hands over his face. Then, looking up towards the finish line in the distance, he jabbed a finger into the lens. “I’m ready,” he said, slightly gritting his teeth. “Are you ready? Let’s go…”
Pacing his lane at the beginning of the 100 metres final at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, 22-year-old Usain Bolt was a mass of twitching muscle fibre, an athlete that seemed to understand the magnitude of the occasion that stretched out before him. This wasn’t simply about winning, about securing another gold medal to add to an already impressive harvest; this was about using one of the biggest stages in world athletics to redefine the limits of human speed.
Forty strides later, he’d achieved each of his goals, gliding across the finish line in an astonishing time of 9.58 seconds, 0.11 seconds faster than the previous record he set himself exactly a year before in the Olympic final in Beijing.
“I’m honestly feeling bad for the other guys who ran this race,” said a disbelieving Michael Johnson, the former world 200m and 400m record holder who was commentating for the BBC. “Tyson Gay runs 9.71… 9.71! A new American record, faster than he has ever run before – and he got beat by two metres. Usain Bolt is unbelievable. It’s just absolutely mind-boggling what he can do.”
Five years on from that night in Berlin, the achievement still astonishes – not least as he followed it up four days later with an equally astounding performance in the 200 metres. His time of 19.19 seconds was also 0.11 seconds better than the previous mark which he also set in Beijing the previous year. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that memories of Germany live long in Usain Bolt’s memory.
What do you remember of the night?
I remember it well, the atmosphere in the stadium, walking out there and hearing the people. The crowd was brilliant. I was in really good shape, I felt good and had a confidence that I was going to do it. The track was so quick as well, I liked the blue track. I remember that I started really well that night, and ran really hard through the line. It was a great night.
I was going there to prove myself to the world again, that I was the best in my discipline.
What about the 200 metres final four days later, in which you broke another record?
It was a similar experience. I ran conservatively through the heats and so had good energy for the final, which I knew I was going to need. Coming off the bend I knew I was running quickly and I was just focused on pumping my arms well and opening up my legs. I wanted to win, but win well more than run a quick time – but when I saw 19.19 on the clock after I finished I was really happy.
The 100-metre world record hasn’t been broken for five years, the longest time in 30 years. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know, really. From a personal level, I’ve struggled with injuries over the past five years so it’s been hard for me to be in the condition to really challenge it. In London in 2012 I felt good, and I wasn’t far away but everything has to be in your favour – your condition, the weather, the track, and then if you execute your race perfectly from the start through the transition and then driving to the line. If all that is in place, then you have a chance.
You are the first sprinter since fellow Jamaican Don Quarrie to hold both 100m and 200m world records simultaneously. How much did you know about him growing up?
Yes, everybody knew about Don, as a young kid he was a hero of mine. He did great things to raise the profile of Jamaica as a nation in track and field and what he did in the 100 and 200 metres was phenomenal. To be mentioned alongside him remains a real honour for me.
When did you first believe you could break a world record?
I can’t really remember because it wasn’t something I ever really thought about. I was always a 200-metre runner, that was my thing, but my coach wanted to me to try the 100 metres. I did, I liked it and learned I was quick. But world records were never something I thought about.
Which of the two records is the one you think you have the best chance of challenging again?
I think I would have to say the 200 metres. I would love to take that record below the 19-second mark; that would be something I’d be really proud of. It’s a goal of mine and the possibility is there. I need to stay injury-free for an entire season, from pre-season training all the way through. Then I know I can do it.
Where do you feel you can take each distance, if you have a perfect day on a fast track, in peak condition?
The 200 metres is the one where I can really push it. I’ve thought about this a fair bit and, as I said, taking it below 19 seconds is what I think I can do. That would be pushing it to the limit.
You said you’d be a legend if you won twin gold in London. If you were to win more gold medals in Rio in 2016, what would that make you?
Well, I think I would still be a legend! It’s hard to imagine that anyone could do that again, so I’m in a privileged position to be going for it. That would keep people talking about me for years to come, I think!
World Records and personal bests aside, what else have you broken over the past five years?
A lot of PlayStation controllers, definitely. Playing Call of Duty online is very frustrating when the internet connection isn’t good – so, yeah, I’ve broken a fair few PlayStation controllers.