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Usain Bolt: The secrets of the fastest man in history

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Usain Bolt - image by Allegra Lockstadt

Image credit: Eurosport

ByDan Quarrell and Ben Snowball
21/05/2020 at 13:56 | Updated 21/05/2020 at 14:56

Dan Quarrell and Ben Snowball explore how Usain Bolt changed the face of athletics across his unparalleled career.

The story has entered the realms of legend, becoming one of athletics' origin myths. A gangly sprinter from humble beginnings bursts onto the scene in Beijing, demolishing three world records as athletics crowns a new king. Armed with the perfect concoction of attributes – speed, swagger and an unavoidably-excellent surname – Usain Bolt was destined to rule the sport.

But little is still known about the mentality behind his ruthless win streak. Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps and Serena Williams are some of the great names who have dominated their sport with unerring intensity. But Bolt, by contrast, was in his element clowning around on the startline. How did the sport’s jester hold the mental edge for nine years in events that last a few fleeting seconds? How could he stay so calm when his legacy always appeared one mistake from unravelling? What was unique about the mindset which spurred him onto unimaginable heights?

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But the origin myth is just that. In reality, Bolt's Olympic record is not the gleaming list of perfection – nine events, nine triumphs – it is always depicted as. There was one race which blotted the copybook, and it came right at the start of a journey which would transform athletics and sport forever.

Editor's note: This article was first published in the summer of 2017 ahead of Usain Bolt's final appearance at the IAAF World Championships – an event that provided a late chink in the Jamaican's aura of invincibility. But as the wait for an obvious successor continues, it is a story worth revisiting. No one has captured a worldwide audience like Bolt as both his times and his personality remain unattainable for the new generation...

1. 'The Day I Beat Bolt'

Poland's Marcin Jedrusinski wins heat four of the men's 200m at the 2004 Athens Olympics

Image credit: Getty Images

When I say I’ve beaten Bolt, the response is always the same: 'No way! You’re kidding!' I have to show the videos, because nobody believes me…

August 24, 2004. Athens is staging the Games of the XXVIII Olympiad, with heat four of the men’s 200m featuring a rising star. The camera is fixated on lane five as world junior champion Bolt, three days after his 18th birthday, gestures to someone in the crowd just moments before "on your marks" is uttered. Around him, his competitors puff out their cheeks in full-on intimidation mode.

Barely 60 seconds later, the Jamaican is out after finishing fifth. Little-known Polish athlete Marcin Jedrusinski, then 22, is acknowledging the crowd after taking victory. Jedrusinski would later bow out at the semi-final stage and retire with just a solitary European silver medal to show for his labours. But as another career drifts into the twilight zone, he can now brag about his unique claim to fame – he was the man who triumphed in Bolt’s sole Olympic failure.

"At that time, I didn’t think I had beaten someone big," Jedrusinski relives to Eurosport Poland. "Usain was a sprinter who had already run under 20 seconds, but he was not yet world class and to be honest, I was keeping an eye on the other sprinters. I beat Usain and got back to the daily routine. Only later did it turn out that the world had never had somebody like him. It turned out I had beaten the legend."

Jedrusinski finished his career with modest personal bests of 10.26s (100m) and 20.31s (200m), with his gangly 6'2" frame prompting calls that his future lay outside sprinting – preconceptions Bolt demolished when he finally burst onto the mainstream four years later in Beijing.

"When I saw him, it reminded me of how others treated me when I was a youngster," Jedrusinski adds. "People used to tell me, 'you’re too tall, stop wasting your time and focus on a different sport'. But I thought 'he’s taller than me and runs under 20 seconds. Why can’t I?' Usain looks like a genuine sprinter now, but in 2004 he was like a walking pole: tall and very thin. In my day, we had Shawn Crawford and Maurice Greene. They were not so tall, but were muscular. Then suddenly we got somebody like Usain who denied all of that."

However Jedrusinski, now back in the army, insists that taking the scalp of the greatest sprinter in history is not the highlight of his career. "Even after all these years, I don’t find beating Bolt my biggest success," he adds. "It was not the fastest run of my life and I didn’t win a medal in Athens. It’s simply a funny story. It was my best Olympics, but not because of beating Bolt. But I have downloaded the videos to show my kids in the future..."

Even the greatest need help. Bolt’s absence of invincibility was short-lived, with coach Glen Mills taking him under his wing at the end of 2004. Mills completely revamped his technique and instilled a firm work ethic – the transformation was total.

2. The Saviour Of Sprinting

Usain Bolt's famous pose - Allegra Lockstadt

Image credit: Eurosport

When Bolt thumped his chest in triumph and eased to a jog even as he was approaching the finish of the 100m final in Beijing, not only was he making a mockery of the Olympics’ flagship event, he was also ripping up the sprint manual forever. Such was his impact that day, athletics has marched to his beat ever since. It was the first time in history that a 100m sprinter had shown such disdain for sprinting the full 100m and still obliterated the world record. The combined winning margins from Atlanta 1996 to Athens 2004 sat at 0.18 seconds; Bolt's 9.69 in 2008 put him 0.2 seconds clear of his closest rival. All on a nutritious diet of chicken nuggets. ‘Anything can happen’ was a phrase now redundant in men’s sprinting, all because of Bolt’s extraordinary run-turned-victory-jog.

And boy did athletics need it. Fresh from the debacle in Athens, which saw proposed Olympic flame lighter Konstantinos Kenteris' missed doping test on the eve of the Opening Ceremony set the tone for a drug-ravaged Games, the sport needed rescuing – and it would be, by the most eccentric of characters.

For five years, Bolt's dominance was such that he could afford his pre-race theatrics, with only a solitary DQ in the 100m final at the World Championships in Daegu, 2011, blighting his clean sweep in major championships. Nobody could get near him – and it defied all logic. Sprinters were supposed to conform to a stereotype: muscular, explosive and not far north of six foot. The start was where the race was won and lost, so what hope did Bolt have of harnessing his surname and blasting from the blocks with his 6'5" frame acting as a giant parachute?

Nothing could stop him in those early years as he set about redefining a sport. But as Bolt’s youth slipped away, so did his frightening advantage. By the time the 2015 World Championships arrived, dissenting voices had emerged – so too had a clear rival to the sport's golden boy: the reviled double drug cheat Justin Gatlin. For the first time in his career, Bolt was under fire from inside and outside his sport. A race which took on a moral dimension – almost becoming a parable of good versus evil – had everything riding on it, and Gatlin was in imperious form, unbeaten in 29 races.

Not that you could tell. With his legacy one defeat from crumbling, Bolt arrived for the 100m final with his typical swagger and looked completely relaxed as the athletes were introduced to the crowd. It wasn’t his raw pace that won the final, but his mental hold on his rivals as Gatlin – an Olympic gold medallist – forgot how to run in the final 15m. This was no fluke. This was the Bolt effect. Thinking you can beat him, and actually beating him, are two very different beasts. It is a tension that his rivals have never been able to resolve, a constant thread running through his career.

3. The Swagger That Stunned Athletics

Usain Bolt of Jamaica poses by the clock displaying his winning time

Image credit: Getty Images

No one had ever seen anything like it. In WWE, perhaps, but certainly not in athletics. When Bolt lined up for the 100m in Beijing in 2008 his rivals were taken aback, as were fans around the world. It was striking, almost shocking in a wonderful way. His fellow sprinters were focused, stern and unflinching while Bolt preened like a peacock; he effectively roared ‘Look! I've arrived! This is how we do things now’. No athlete had ever celebrated victory prior to a race so convincingly before; no one had dared to make the 100m a one-man party, only interrupted very fleetingly by the main event. The race itself was only a very small part of a wider celebration, not only of talent, but of personality.

It inspires me to perform better

Bolt had arrived, and his world-record run was sandwiched between selfies, lightning bolts and rampant, uninhibited posing. It was how a young athlete might play out their moment of triumph in front of a full-length mirror while dancing for joy. It played out like a dream for the young Jamaican. He was the only one not surprised by the swagger; he was the only one not surprised by the success. Athletics had been changed forever, all in the space of 30 stunning, unforgettable minutes.

"I’ve never seen anybody compete with such a carefree attitude and a sense of enjoyment, a celebration of his talent," triple jump world-record holder Jonathan Edwards tells Eurosport. "For me that makes him stand out as much as his talent in itself and what he’s achieved."

"It is just showing my personality," Bolt himself explains. "I did it a few times and the crowd liked it so I kept doing it. I love when a stadium has a lot of energy, it inspires me to perform better."

It is for this reason that the swagger doesn't grind, the posing doesn't drag, because this is Bolt being completely himself, the unbridled, unchecked version of himself. It's the authenticity of his antics that makes them relatable for his millions of fans, because this is how he behaves around his friends and at home. The opposite of being contrived and designed for the cameras, he is simply showing the world the real him.

Professor Steve Peters, author of the Chimp Paradox and celebrated sports psychiatrist, tells Eurosport how Bolt has mastered the art of being completely relaxed before hitting the blocks, by "managing to either learn how to focus at the appropriate moment or having little fear about failure or underperformance, or feeling totally prepared". It is an almost perfect recipe for pre-race psychology, and we may never see it utilised to the same extent again.

The 100m start line, most commonly a place of crippling nerves and unbearable tension, has been turned into a dance floor and a catwalk rolled into one by the incomparable Bolt.

4. The Ultimate Facade: Inside The Mind Of A Ruthless Winning Machine

Usain Bolt and the stages of sprinting - Allegra Lockstadt

Image credit: Eurosport

What does Bolt think about, when the heart is pounding and the tension is unbearable before the start of an Olympic 100m final? Where does the elite mind go in moments of such extreme stress, with adrenaline coursing through the veins? The answer is an unexpected one.

"I try to think about random things," Bolt reveals. "What I will have for dinner, what I need to do the next day." Not even random things related to the race, or the fact that he is on the start line with millions of fans around the world watching every twitch of his muscles. It seems incredible that the greatest sprinter of all time is not even thinking about his upcoming test until that 'on your marks' moment. And just like that, he snaps into his state of focus, he jolts into a different persona altogether; it is only at that point that the smile fades, the posing halts and a ruthless, clinical winning machine is switched on.

The most important thing is always to get the win

During a 100m or 200m race, there is little time for thought. But what goes through the mind of the Jamaican as he is pounding the track is still a point of fascination. "There isn’t a lot of time to think about things but I generally have things I need to focus on, from the start to the drive phrase to the transition into top speed running," Bolt says.

As anyone who has ever watched him perform – and win – knows full well, the after-race party is often as big of a deal as the race itself, something he is very well aware of as he reveals his process. "The most important thing is always to get the win, then I check the time to see how fast it was. After this it is about thanking the fans for their support. I usually do a victory lap which involves a lot of selfies and autographs."

Athletics was never this way before: the sport has changed, for the better. Bolt may give the impression he is just having fun with his antics but it's the ultimate facade: there's a perfectly-timed steely focus behind that smile.

5. The Mentality of Certain Defeat

Usain Bolt of Jamaica (R) crosses the line first ahead of Kim Collins

Image credit: Getty Images

Belief is an athlete's best friend. Sprinters, in particular, carry belief like a badge. If you don't have belief, goes the assumption on the start line of a 100m race, there is no point in taking off the oversized headphones and stripping down to the lycra. When competing against Bolt, however, belief has never seemed as futile, as unconvincing, as imperceptible.

It is extremely difficult to get any athlete to talk about the challenge of facing Bolt, the conclusion of him being impossible to beat on the big stage so often hinted at but never conceded publicly. While you will find athletes who accept that there is an intimidation factor around Bolt, 2003 world champion and sprinting legend Kim Collins, who remarkably will be competing again in London at the age of 41, dismisses the subject out of hand, with an emphatic "No!". Try telling Collins that facing Bolt is something to be feared.

"A competitor is a competitor; he is no different to my five-year-old son," he responds in animated fashion. "When I race my five-year-old I refuse to let him win and let him feel as though he’s better than me, so when you’re a competitor you compete against everybody to beat them, not to let them win. So when we lose, we didn’t just stand back and let them win."

Collins remains impressively defiant, with the perspective a world title and a wealth of experience lends him. "I’ve been around real intimidators: Carl Lewis, Linford Christie, Dennis Mitchell, Donovan Bailey and all those guys, they were totally different. So these guys now, they can’t move me." Outright intimidation? Perhaps not. But despite Collins' protestations, Bolt's swagger is something else, something powerful.

"If his rivals choose to focus on him then they can expect a reaction," Professor Peters explains. "For some it might result in a negative outcome. For 100m runners they must accept that there is no room for error." And that is why racing Bolt comes down to a unique and wholly demoralising challenge: to accept that even the perfect race may not be enough. It will almost certainly not be enough.

I don't really feel pressure

Roger Black once described racing the great Michael Johnson as "racing for second place". For sprinters, the agony of competing for second is compounded by the heartbreaking, ego-piercing truth that is almost inescapable on the start line: the idea that the remainder of the field effectively represent a sideshow, a parade of dejected also-rans. It may sound harsh to portray competing against Bolt in these terms, but when you consider the sacrifices, the dedication and the commitment required to compete as an elite athlete, this psychological truth is simply devastating, and effectively crippling.

For Bolt himself, of course, different rules apply. No pressure, no negativity; total assurance; total belief. "I don't really feel pressure," Bolt declares with an ease that must be infuriating for his rivals.

The mentality of certain defeat: an unacceptable mindset for a sprinter, but almost inevitable when coming up against a man who simply knows he is going to win. That is how Bolt has changed the game. If he wants to be relaxed he will be relaxed; if he wants to win he will win. Perhaps never before has an athlete appeared to be in such complete control. Whether or not his fellow competitors recognise or perceive an intimidation factor, the fact remains that Bolt has a hold over his rivals when it comes to the defining events of his era, one which goes beyond purely talent and speed.

6. The Legacy Of A Legend

Usain Bolt with his famous smile - Allegra Lockstadt

Image credit: Eurosport

"In athletics he is the greatest, and outside athletics he is up there with the legends of sport like Pele, Maradona and Muhammad Ali," Mo Farah tells Eurosport.

Boil down Bolt's career to the simple process of running and it's tough to agree with the assertion. Fourteen minutes and 28.83 seconds – the time Farah would take to plod through an unusually pedestrian 5,000m race – is the total time Bolt has spent on track during individual events at Olympic and World Championship level, dating from Athens 2004 to Rio 2016. Even if you include his relay exploits at a generous 10 seconds per race, Bolt's total input from 62 global heats and finals stretches to just 16 minutes and eight seconds. One sixth of a football match; barely five rounds in the ring.

True, Bolt has run sporadically in Diamond League meets, national championships and even the Commonwealth Games, but his brand was built in those 16 minutes – few care what happened in events in Doha and Kingston.

Sure, Bolt showed fallibility with his disqualification in Daegu. But even that false start helped fuel a myth that the only man who could stop him was himself. With potential gains outweighed tenfold by the damage of defeat, Bolt's consistency under the most intense pressure has rarely been witnessed in sport. Nor has it been more welcome.

Bolt was anointed as the saviour of athletics after the turmoil of Athens 2004, a tough gig for anyone, let alone a prankster who was still coming to grips with his generation-defining talent. But bear the responsibility he did, proving a willing distraction to the seemingly ceaseless and damning doping stories sweeping the sport.

Every tale with a hero also needs a villain. Or villains, as it transpired in athletics, as Bolt's chief rivals Gatlin and Tyson Gay became boo boys due to their drug-blotted pasts. It was Bolt's head-to-head with the former that garnered most publicity, with Gatlin only too willing to play the role of Public Enemy No.1. The American's unapologetic stance may have sparked outrage, but it also inadvertently built a platform for Bolt to assert himself as athletics' riposte to cheating. And the Jamaican did exactly that, time and time again.

In fact, the minor blemish on Bolt's record is that he didn't push the world records further. If only he had squeezed in bonus races in the aftermath of Berlin 2009, praying for the optimal +1.9m/s tailwind, he may have pushed the world record further into uncharted territory: 9.4 seconds for 100m and sub-19 seconds for 200m both felt attainable in his pomp.

PT Barnum was credited with coining the phrase, 'always leave them wanting more', and with Bolt the feeling is unavoidably strong. Athletics has lost its greatest entertainer.

Forget the medals and world records. If Bolt's legacy is anything, it's that he transformed a sport from stony-faced stares to cheeky grins – bringing the fans closer than ever. He introduced the concept of the after party, proving that the show can go on long after the race has finished. He's also crushed the notion that champions have to hold an omnipresent focus and be serious 24-7. His startline smile may be infectious, but it's also one of his most brutal weapons. It's message? 'No one can stop me.'

From the torso-beating kid to the ruthless-but-aging guardian, Bolt's impact – both on and off the track – has been rivalled by few. Farah is surely right: the Jamaican belongs among sport's greatest figures. After all, who else can boast of a golden career forged from a little over 15 minutes of foundations?

Jamaica's Usain Bolt wins the 100 metres final at the 2013 IAAF World Championships at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow on August 11, 2013

Image credit: Getty Images

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Dan Quarrell - TWITTER

Ben Snowball - TWITTER

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