To the Cicada des Arts, a sprawling cultural complex in Barra, to join the sweaty throng for Usain Bolt’s pre-Olympic press conference. Or, more accurately, 20 minutes of softballing questions from the hundreds of the world’s media, in which the Jamaican sprinter was told “Your way of dealing with the pressure makes Brazilian people want to marry you a little more,” and rapped to by a Norwegian journalist, who also told Bolt he was in love with him.
At the finale Bolt was joined on the stage by scantily clad Samba dancers, who he danced along to in perfect time. His sponsor’s, Puma, had chosen the venue – a large theatre – well.
What did we learn? Two things. First, that Bolt believes the drug problems that have cast a thick cloud over his sport are thinning, and could even evaporate. And that he still believes that he could one day break his 200m world record of 19.19 sec, set in Berlin seven years ago.
“I think we are going in the right direction,” said Bolt when asked about doping. “We are weeding out the bad ones, and I personally think we are on the right track. We have had to go through a rough time before the good times. But in a few years the sport should be clean and I look forward to that.”
On the walls one graffiti artist had painted Bolt crouching down in a starting position looking intently Christ the Redeemer. It seemed to be a subliminal message: the Jamaican was a track deity who could lead the sport into better times. But when pressed about how sure he was the 100m final would be free from drugs, he shrugged his shoulders. “In life nothing is guaranteed,” he replied. “But I never worry about drugs. That’s for Wada and the IAAF and the IOC. They worry about these problems. I go out and compete and wow the crowd. In a few years it will be fine, I personally think.”
His main adversary Justin Gatlin, his arch rival, was not given a name-check. But if Bolt has any doubts over his chances of defending his Olympic 100m and 200m titles in Rio he is an even better actor than he is sprinter.
Bolt’s press conferences are always more like comedy performances: when he retires, as he promises to do after the 2017 world championships, he would make a brilliant chat show host. For now though his mind is on possibly one day going under 19 seconds in the 200m.
“I am more nervous over the 200m than anything else,” he admitted. “For the 100m it is never really stressful, I know where I am weakest and strongest. But when I get to the 200m I am always nervous, right from the rounds to the final because I love the 200m the most. I really want to run under 19 seconds. It will be a little bit hard because I missed out on a few weeks of training, but you never know. And the 100m rounds always help my 200m.”
He did admit, however, that his coach, Glen Mills, had been spectacularly unimpressed by his recent 19.89sec for 200m at the recent Anniversary Games in London. “I called my coach and asked ‘how was it?’” Bolt revealed. “He said that is one of the worst races I have ever run. He just went on and on until I got depressed.”
Those Jamaican media entourage who are close to Bolt talk of him being in shape to go under 9.70sec in Sunday’s 100m final. The line between cheerleader and journalist can be thin amongst their corps – most were wearing their country’s colours of black, green and gold – but when they promise that Bolt is in form they are usually proved right.
The evening started when Bolt, wearing a white cap back to front, stepped on to the stage, only to almost immediately stop and walk backwards into the darkness again. “First of all, you got to clap louder than that,” he joked. All week reports from Jamaica’s training camp have suggested that the 29-year-old is looking supremely relaxed in the build-up to what will be his last Olympics. Nothing he did or said suggested otherwise.
He smiled when he was asked about his form and his rivals. “It has not been the perfect build-up but I am in much better shape,” he said. “I’ve been training well, and that’s the key thing. But I never try to pick out one person as a main rival, it is all about the eight people on the day.”
Then – bizarrely – there was a rap from Nicolay Andre Ramm, a Norwegian radio journalist, who told Bolt he loved him and didn’t want him to get hit by a Segway, as he had been in the World Championships in Beijing last year. Afterwards Ramm explained: “It’s a show, so you have to spice it up with some comedy.” It certainly didn’t feel like a press conference.
But the overriding impression was that Bolt was as supremely happy as he is confident, which he hasn’t always been the case during major championships. “The only problem is I’ve had to buy a TV for myself,” he chuckled. “They said we would get one but after two days it hadn’t turned up, so I went out and bought one.” On Sunday night millions will be watching him – and, almost certainly, watching him deliver yet again.
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