AS I was sitting down for an exclusive interview with Usain Bolt, the first thing that the World’s Fastest Man – all two metres of him hunched on the chair – said to me was: “Come closer, closer.”
Bolt – full name Usain St Leo Bolt – has just stepped off the stage at the Global Transformation Forum 2017, where he electrified an audience of some 3,000 with an inspiring tale of how a cricket-loving Jamaican boy became a sprinter who blazed across the finishing line at a World Record of 9.58s for the 100m in Berlin in 2009.
Somewhere in the vast KL Convention Centre, where the forum was being held, were tote bags with the caption “I caught up with Bolt” emblazoned across them.
Funnily enough, Bolt the legend – as one member of the audience called him during the question and answer session – comes across as a laid back, disarmingly friendly guy, who just happened to win nine gold medals at three Olympics in a row, a “triple, triple.”
He doesn’t try to evade questions, not even when he was being needled by CNN’s international business correspondent and presenter Richard Quest during his hour-long Transformative Masterclass session on stage and not when he was taking my queries.
By the time the other reporters came in, Bolt had already talked about his retirement plans (he wants to focus on his charity work in Jamaica and his business), given tips on running (core strengthening is important), mused about football (he’s hoping to work something out with Manchester United) and taken a few rounds of selfies.
And cue that famous pose, which he gamely struck up for the cameras, not once but twice to the great delight of the audience and the burst of photography flashes in the packed plenary hall.
The 30-year-old answered all of the questions – he must have answered the same questions at least a dozen times, put to him by a dozen different reporters in the past month alone – with his trademark grin.
To say the audience was awestruck by Bolt’s presence – the holder of both the 100m and 200m world records as well as that for the 4×100m relay – is an understatement.
Another member of the audience gushed that he had “19 questions ready” for him.
However, the one thing that Bolt continues to stress upon, the single thing that he will have me remember during the interview, is how hard he has worked for his success.
“A lot of people see it (and) a lot of times, oh, they think ‘I can do this’. Yeah, you can do this but it’s not easy to get to the top or to be the best. So, it’s the work you put in.
“You have to understand they (athletes) have to work hard, have to be very dedicated (with) a lot of sacrifice also,” he had told Quest earlier.
Asked by Quest what he has sacrificed, Bolt’s answer was immediate: “Everything. For me, it’s my time. I have no time for myself.”
It’s a reply he stuck to despite Quest disagreeing, showing the audience a clip on the giant screen of his “party animal” ways.
“Track and field is intense. Everytime it gets overwhelming, I go party,” Bolt pointed out, though, not too seriously and again, flashing that wide smile.
Bolt, it seems, is as famous for his partying as much as the hard work he espouses.
But, really, who can forget the Internet memes generated from that semi-final run during last year’s 100m dash at the Rio Olympics, which he completed, grinning, in 9.89s? Or the ease by which he gamboled across the finishing line, leaving his rivals in his wake?
Bolt said he only made it look that easy because he had trained hard for nine to 10 months for that one moment.
Hard work is the one lesson that he has had to learn the tough way, so to speak.
Earlier on, Bolt shared with the audience how he initially thought that his time from running during High School was going to carry him through when he turned professional. Instead, things got difficult, a period he has described as the “lowest point of his career”.
On top of the negativity he encountered about being a “one-hit wonder”, it took him, Bolt said, four years to realise that he needed to get down to the task of serious training, hard work and discipline.
“It took me a while but I woke up,” he confessed, adding that he then had to play catch up as everyone was ahead of him.
It’s a lesson that Bolt has since taken to heart, setting goals for himself to achieve throughout his running career although the first one that he did was prosaic enough.
He has only wanted to buy a washing machine for his mother – “I’m a Momma’s boy”, he told the audience sheepishly – and a car for his cricket-loving father.
A few washing machines later, Bolt is still setting goals for himself, albeit a lot grander.
“The one thing I do is set goals for myself. I always tell people that’s the simplest thing you can do. If I go into football, I probably say, all right, I want to score 20 goals this season (and) depending on what (position) I play, I want to do this amount of assists.
“Then, I work towards it. That’s pretty much it. I don’t do any special thing or any ritual. I just set goals and I work because I know what it takes to get to the top. Just set goals and work towards it.”
It’s an advice that he continues to push, even when I confronted him – though confront is hardly the word I would use with a man almost double my height – about the state of Malaysian athletics, especially in track and field where Jamaica is one of the standard bearers, and whether the Malaysian government is doing enough.
“I definitely think that what sports you (Malaysia) focus on the most (is where) you produce more athletes,” he said, adding that both personal efforts and government aid helped in the development of world-class athletes.
“Because starting off, we didn’t have a lot of money in Jamaica but we produced athletes. When we got to a certain level, (we) definitely need the government to step in and help.”
However, Bolt warns against pinning it all on the Malaysian government – or any other government, for that matter – to see any improvement in the country’s performance on the world stage like the Olympics.
“Because you (athletes) can always do so much your own way. Because when I was coming through, we didn’t have a lot of (government) help.
“But I wanted to do this and be great. So, I worked,” said Bolt, who earlier reeled off Pele, Maradona, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan as among the sporting greats he looks up to.
“Sometimes, it’s the attitude of the athletes that made it. It’s definitely not the facilities or whatever it is. Sometimes, a lot of the athletes may not have gotten the facilities but they want it more than life,” he said, citing Kenyan javelin thrower Julius Yego, who learned the sport from watching YouTube videos, as an example.
Yego went on to win the silver medal at the Rio Olympics.
“He has nothing and he trained but he made it. It’s how much you want it as a person and how dedicated you are. It’s good to get help from the government and everyone around you but it’s how much you want it.”
Similarly, he cautions against cranking too much heat on local athletes to perform, saying that he has seen too many falling by the wayside due to pressure.
“A lot of athletes can’t handle pressure...I’ve seen a few athletes who have succumbed and it’s the pressure that the country’s (sports) confederation put on them to do great that has really caused them to fall by the wayside.
“Because that athlete may not be capable of dealing with that pressure and then, (you’re) going to lose that athlete that could have gone and done great things,” he said, adding that it was also not right to exert that kind of stress on athletes, particularly when they are at a young age.
Bolt has his own way of dealing with the pressure, he reveals to Quest; he lets his mind dwell on trivial matters during that pivotal moment at the starting block and, probably because he now trains so hard, he does not want to think about his competitors or stress about events he has no control over.
“I think about video games, I think of what I’m going to wear tomorrow or if I’m going to party after the meet. It clears your mind so much....It works for me, I don’t know about anybody else.”
When Quest pointed out that “clearly, it’s working very well for him”, Bolt added: “But you’ve prepared all you can already.
“There’s nothing you can do now at that moment. You’ve trained nine or 10 months for that moment. All you can do is run and compete.
“When I get to the (starting) line, I’m confident that I’m going to win at all times, no matter what’s going on. Even if I end up losing, I’m still confident that I’m going to win,” he said with a laugh.
The one time that he didn’t train or prepare all he could due to an earlier knee injury – and as a consequence, his confidence took a stumble – was when Bolt crashed out from the World Championships in Helsinki in 2004, which, to this day, he never has a conversation with his coach about and still finds it shocking.
I asked him if there is anyone who can beat Usain Bolt – him, with brimming confidence, positive thinking and old-fashioned hard work.
He laughed. “I definitely want to say no” but later, he conceded that “anything’s possible.”
“But like I said, it’s about how much they want it.”
Excerpts of question and answer with Usain Bolt
Q: Is this your first time in Malaysia?
A: This is my first time.
Q: And what do you think of it so far?
A: It’s good. I’ve been thinking of it for a long while and I’ve been wanting to come for a vacation. After this, after the season, I’ll definitely come back.
Q: How has Jamaica produced so many Olympics champions like you? How come Malaysia could not do it?
A: I think it’s all about what sports you pay attention to over the years. When you started off, you used to pay a lot of attention on football. Football’s big. Then, I think over time (as) track and field got bigger and then (there is) more focus on track and field. I definitely think what sports you focus on the most (is where) that you produce more athletes. I think as Malaysia focus more on track and field and over time, Malaysia will start to produce more athletes.
Q: Do you think this is more due to personal efforts or government funding for development?
A: Well, I think it’s both. Because starting off, we didn’t have a lot of money in Jamaica but we produced athletes. When we got to a certain level, (we) definitely needed the government to step in and help but we started by ourselves. But (there) comes a time when you’ll definitely need government support.
Q: What’s the most inspiring thing you could tell all the boys and girls in Malaysia who want to be like you?
A:It’s determination, you know, and to enjoy what you do. Always enjoy what you do. Just work hard and to be honest, it’s not an easy role. It’s never easy but just be determined and focused and work towards your vision.
Q: Do you think there’s anyone who can beat Usain Bolt?
A: I definitely want to say no (laughs). But like my Ma say, anything’s possible. You never know who’s going to show up next. For me, personally, I didn’t want it to go but hopefully, for the sport, it will.
Q: You’ve revitalised interest in the track and field? Do you feel that there’ll be someone like you again?
A: Oh, there won’t be anyone like me, that’s for sure. But I think the possibility of athletes stepping up, there’s a possibility. But like I said, it’s about how much they want it, as much as I wanted it. Because I really wanted it. So, the question is do they want to be as great as me or even greater than me.
Q: I read that you said you wanted to try for Manchester United (post-retirement)
A: Yeah, I’d love to. That’s something I love. Hopefully, I’ll get to work something out.
Q: How soon can we see you on the (football) field?
A: I’m going to get a trial run with Borussia Dortmund. I’ve been invited to spend a couple of days and train with them. So from there, then we’ll decide if I’m at that level or if I want to take it on from there. Personally, I want to but we’ll see how it goes.
Q: What tips would you have for people who want to run? Tips for speed?
A: To me, it’s all about technique and strength. I think core strengthening is one of the most important thing and then, come technique. Those two are the important things if you’re a runner and you want to improve on anything.
Q: Would you have done something out of sports if you haven’t been a runner?
A: I was always into sports, I think, from the start. My Dad got me into cricket, then got me into running. So, for me, all I knew when I was growing up was sports.
Q: Would you consider a career in politics (after retirement)?
A: No. I’m not very good at politics (laughs)
Q: You’re known for your trademark smile. Is there anything secret behind it?
A: (laughs). No, it’s just me. The first idea - coming off is trying to be me (and) showing the world who I am.
Q: You seem like a laidback person, compared to how fast you run. Does your laidback personality kind of help you in your running?
A: For me, it comes to me in relaxing before a race. Because that’s all I am. So, it takes for me to relax and not get tense when the races are about to start.
Q: How can you not get carried away by the wealth and the money you’ve won?
A: I just work for what I want. I just have a simple life. All I like to do is to party. That’s who I am. I’m just a simple person who really enjoy life and work for what I want.
Q: What about the future? Do you think we will fear the next wave of Jamaican sprinters?
A: (laughs) I think we definitely have a lot of talent. I think a lot of times, a lot of athletes lost on motivation. I’ve seen a lot of talent that I thought was going to be good and then, at the end of the day, they kind of faded away. So, I feel - I’ve tried this a lot -, it’s not easy. You shouldn’t be satisfied with just making the Olympics or the Jamaican team because a lot of athletes (when they do) feel like, woah, they’ve done good. Continue to struggle for bigger and better things, continue making goals. It’s all about the determination of the athletes but definitely, there’s a lot of talent there.
Q: Is there anything we can do to convince you to stay for the next Olympics?
A: (laughs) There’s nothing left. It’s too far. Maybe in the next two years, I’ll say four more years.
Q: Are you bored with the sport?
A: Yes, the motivation is not there. I enjoy watching (the) sport. (It’s) not because I don’t like the sport, (it’s) because I’ve done what I’ve wanted. This was my aim - to win (at) the three Olympics and I’ve achieved the ultimate aim. So, I need to find something fresh and new that I really want.