When Usain Bolt sashayed into a cramped and overcrowded London hotel room on Thursday to face the world’s media, he blinked at the barrage of flashbulbs before uttering one word under his breath: “Wow”.
On Friday night, when the Jamaican returns to the Olympic Stadium for the Anniversary Games, he intends to elicit exactly the same reaction from the near-capacity 53,000 crowd as he did when he won three brilliant gold medals at London 2012.
Wow. Wow. Wow.
Bolt knows there is a growing band of sceptics and non-believers out there: those who are convinced he will never again hit the searing heights that have elevated him to six Olympic and eight world championship titles and to global superstardom. But he has rediscovered his form in training and over 100m on Friday night he intends to make the sort of statement that might make Justin Gatlin, who has gone under 9.8sec four times already in 2015, go a little wobbly.
“I won’t know until I race but I’ve been training good and working really hard,” he said. “It just takes one run to get to 9.7 so I’m not worried about times. I remember in 2011 I was really struggling yet when I came to the championships I was in great form. OK, I false-started in the 100m final but the 200m was pretty good. I’m sure that when I get to the championships I will always be ready.”
A superficial glance at Bolt’s performances this season suggests Gatlin has little to fear. The Jamaican’s sole 100m was a modest 10.12, a time that puts him 62nd in the rankings and below such nobodies as the Italian Jacques Riparelli and Mosito Lehata from Lesotho. Gatlin, meanwhile, has been near-metronomic in running the four fastest 100m times in the world – 9.74, 9.75, 9.75, 9.78.
However, you can put a kinder spin on Bolt’s performances. The Jamaican’s only 100m was early in the season, into a strong headwind and his blocks slipped at the start. And while Bolt’s best 200m time of 20.13 this year is more than half a second behind Gatlin’s world leading performance, he did it in driving rain and deliberately did not go all out because of the conditions.
But while most sprinters would feel a cloying pressure to perform after a more out-than-in season – especially with the Americans Marvin Bracy and Mike Rodgers and half a dozen British athletes dreaming of taking his scalp – Bolt insists he is not worried in the slightest.
“In 100m I never get nervous,” he says. “We’ve been doing a lot of work on the start so I just have to execute. The first 40m of a 100m is the weakest part of my race so I am working extremely hard in getting that right. If I do, I will have no issues.”
There are other reasons for optimism. The knee injury that forced Bolt to miss most of the 2013 season has healed and the pelvis worry that forced him to withdraw from Paris and Lausanne Diamond League meetings this month was not serious. Bolt was still able to train – it was just that he was not quite as explosive out of the blocks as he wanted. Doubling up in the 100m and 200m at the world championships in Beijing, he insists, remains the intention.
“If my coach isn’t worried then I’m never worried because he always finds a way to get me ready for the championships,” Bolt said. “I’ve been doing good in training and everything is going smoother. Hopefully I can go on the track and deliver.”
In Bolt’s absence Gatlin has become the dominant figure in sprinting, charging away from elite fields time and again. The American is unbeaten in 29 races over 23 months but even he seems wary of what his Jamaican rival could do – warning that he expected a flying Bolt come Beijing. Was he being nice or was it mind games? Even Bolt is not sure.
“My best friend NJ [Nugent Walker] and I have talked about this,” he said.
“I remember Tyson Gay one time, he was saying bad things about me. One thing you learn is that saying bad things about me doesn’t help. I think someone has talked to him and said: ‘Listen, stop saying bad things about Usain, if you say nice things maybe he won’t be angry or he won’t work any harder.’ It’s too late.”
Yet while Bolt says he has no problem with Gatlin competing despite having failed two drugs tests earlier in his career, he is frustrated that track and field almost constantly finds itself under suspicion. “Definitely, because you work hard and the sport is getting back a good reputation and then it backslides because other athletes decide that they want to do the wrong thing,” he said. “It does upset me because everyone starts pointing fingers and it doesn’t help the sport. At times I do get frustrated.”
Bolt has always been a good talker, and for nearly a decade he has been an even better runner. He wants to go well under 10 seconds on Friday night, and while the forecast cold, rain and thunderstorms could temper that ambition, it could also be an omen.
After all, when Bolt broke his first 100m world record, by running 9.72 in 2008, it was on a stormy New York night – while in the 2013 world championships a lightning bolt cracked across the Moscow skyline just seconds before he raced away from the field to claim gold in 9.77.
Somewhere close to a repeat would do very nicely.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010