The fastest man in history is pondering just how much more destructive he could have been in the super spikes that have swung a wrecking ball at so many world records. Briefly, there is a battle between Usain Bolt the diplomat and Usain Bolt the competitor. The competitor wins. “Me and a friend were talking about this the other day,” he tells the Guardian. “And I was like, ‘should I be upset?’ Because I know over the years everyone has tried to make spikes different and better but …”
Bolt stresses he is not worried about the current crop shredding his 100m world record of 9.58sec or his 200m best of 19.19sec. Yet he sounds uneasy about where the arms race in shoe technology will lead. “How can I argue if World Athletics decide that it’s legal? I can’t do anything about it. The rules are the rules. I don’t think I’ll be fully happy, but it’s just one of those things.”
He wants to make one thing absolutely clear: he would have gone a whole lot faster in the new wave of super spikes – which feature a superlight, energy-returning foam and are said to be worth at least a tenth of a second over 100m. He is just not sure by how much. “We have guessed and we have talked about it, but I don’t know for sure,” he says. “But definitely much faster. Below 9.5 seconds for sure. Without a doubt.”
It is a punchy statement, but the greatest and most popular athlete of his generation is only just getting started. When asked about Britain’s Adam Gemili’s pledge to take a knee on the podium at the Olympics in support of Black Lives Matter he doesn’t procrastinate or play the politician. “If you believe in something, then you should do it. It’s something that we need to make the world aware of, what’s going on with racism.”
While the International Olympic Committee recently reiterated that protests on the field of play and the podium are banned Bolt suggests they are swimming against the tide. “I’ve seen it big in football now. If a track athlete decides to do it, they should be able to voice their opinion.”
It is rare for Bolt to grant an exclusive interview with a British newspaper and rarer still to hear him so reflective on so many subjects, including fame and falling short. Such sentiments are not usually associated with someone who won 134 of his 146 races between 2008 and 2017, winning eight Olympic gold medals and 11 world titles along the way. But when Bolt looks back at his career he believes he was capable of winning 200m gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics, when he was 17.
It may sound preposterous, but Bolt makes his case with the thoroughness of a Harvard law professor. He believes people forget that, as a 16-year-old, he ran 20.13sec to finish 2003 ranked ninth in the world. But after moving to Kingston, and discovering Burger King and nightclubs, he did not always want to train. That, and a subsequent injury, meant he didn’t emerge out of the heats in Athens.
“In 2003, I was running faster than almost everybody,” he says. “If I had run in the world championships that year I would have probably medalled. And if I’d continued on that road, I would have run 19 seconds earlier in my career, so for sure I could have won gold in Athens if I’d dedicated myself more.”
“But it was tough for me because even in high school I was famous. Everyone knew who I was in Jamaica. And I didn’t have somebody who had already been through it to say: ‘You have to take this seriously, because this is what you could do.’ It was just my coach telling me to train hard.
“That’s why I try to talk to the younger athletes now and explain to them ‘get serious early man’. Because the possibilities are endless.”
There is a second confession. After Bolt’s career ended with him tumbling to the track after tearing his hamstring during the 2017 world championships in London, he was twice tempted to make a comeback. “It was something I thought about in the first and second year after I retired,” he says. “I even went to my coach. But he was like, ‘It’s going to be harder than before – coming back is not going to be a cakewalk.’
“When I look back I have no regrets. I did extremely well in my career. True, it didn’t end on the greatest note but the legacy I left is wonderful.”
For years Bolt has been asked whether he will run again. Until now the answer has always been no. But on 13 July he will return to the track over 800m, a distance he has never run professionally, in a promotion for the US firm CarMax. The challenge, which will be streamed live on Bolt’s Facebook page, is lighthearted – can he do two laps of his home track in Kingston quicker than a CarMax customer receives a live online appraisal offer, a process that typically takes under two minutes? – but he says he is taking it seriously.
“I train every day of the week. I still do a lot of cardio. And I’m on my Peleton too. Now I just need to sharpen up at the track and get my lung capacity up.”
You do look in shape, I say. He laughs. “I have tried to stay fit because my friends told me that when I retired I would get fat and I was like ‘no way’. So I can’t let myself go when they have bet me it will happen in the next six to eight years. For me, it’s a pride thing. I’m not going to let them win. I’m not going to give them the satisfaction.”
So how fast could he run 800m? “My PR is around 2:05, but when I put my spikes on I reckon I can take five seconds off.”
Given he is only 34, could he yet be tempted to race properly again? “No, no, definitely not. This is just a challenge. Even now, I need something to challenge myself.”
For the past three Olympics, Bolt has been the closest thing sport has had to a religious experience. Even the mere mention of his name would create a wall of sound at the stadiums in Beijing, London and Rio, while his familiar burst of unanswerable speed and joy somehow always seemed to make jaws drop and smile at the same time. Bolt acknowledges that Tokyo will be a very different and difficult experience for athletes trapped in the bubble, as well as the few spectators permitted. But he believes a combination of a fast track and hot conditions will lead to spectacular performances.
Unsurprisingly, it is the 100m and 200m that excites him the most, but his answer comes with a twist. “The women’s finals will be without a doubt more interesting,” he says. “That’s what I’m looking forward to the most. IThe women have really stepped up and they’ve led the way for a few years now.”
He talks about the protagonists with a coach’s eye, noting how the Jamaican favourite Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce has changed her stride pattern to make herself faster and how Britain’s Dina Asher-Smith looks far stronger than when she won 200m gold at the 2019 world championships.
“Dina has already proven herself to be one of top athletes in the world,” Bolt says. “But she keeps pushing to be the best and to beat the best. You see she puts in the work. She has the dedication. If a conversation is happening about who is going to win Olympic gold, she’s a part of it.”
But when asked who he would put his money on for the 100m, he opts for his compatriot. “Shelly-Ann has the edge because of her experience, as long as she just doesn’t put too much pressure on herself. But Dina is her closest challenger.”
Before Covid struck, Bolt had intended to go to Tokyo as a fan, watching as many sports as possible – with fencing particularly on his bucket list. Instead, he will be in Kingston, watching while playing with his three children, Olympia Lightning Bolt, who turned one in May, and two-month-old twins Thunder Bolt and Saint Leo Bolt. He would love them to go into sports but says that a fourth child, which could create an unbeatable mixed 4x400m relay team, is not going to happen.
When asked what parenthood has taught him most, Bolt instantly replies “patience”. That could turn out to be good news for track and field. For while most of his current attention is on a fledgling music career, he hints he may yet have unfinished business with the sport he dominated for so long.
“In the past my biggest problem was being patient with athletes,” he says. “But when you have kids you have to be a lot more patient. That has made me think about coaching. I have sat with my coach and started picking his brain about different things – how he writes his programme and stuff like that – so you never know. Maybe in the future I will take on the challenge. Let’s see what happens.”