Usain Bolt is a freak of nature. For starters, there’s the size: 6ft 5in (ideal sprinters are thought to be between 5ft 11in and 6ft 1in). Then there's the condition that should have ruled out a career in sport — scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, which resulted in one leg being half an inch shorter than the other. And the attitude — at warm-up, a do-or-die intensity is etched on the faces of his rivals, but Bolt smiles, hangs out, even dances. And, of course, the records: Bolt is the fastest man ever — at both 100m and 200m. Finally, and most outrageously, he wasn't even giving his all when he broke them.
Bolt has just flown in from Germany and is curled up in his chair like a sleepy cat. His voice is deep, soft and slow. He recently lost his first 100m race in more than two years, to Tyson Gay. But he’s already focused on the two biggies — next season's world championships and, most important, the 2012 Olympics in London.
The world has been blessed with phenomenal sprinters, but nobody can hold a light to Bolt. In 2002 he became the youngest gold medallist at the junior world championships, winning the 200m. He was only 15, beating boys four years older than him.
Bolt, 24, grew up in a small rural town in Trelawny, Jamaica. When he was a young boy, his parents, who ran the local grocery store, took him to the doctor because he couldn't stay still. “I was all over the place, climbing things. My mum goes, ‘There must be something wrong with this kid’, and the doctor goes, ‘Nooooo, he's just hyperactive’.” His mother was gentle and forgiving, his father a disciplinarian. Respect was an important word in the Bolt household. And when young Usain didn't show enough of it, he knew his father would beat some into him.
Cricket was his first love. He grew up when the West Indies were still a force, and he wanted to step into the shoes of Courtney Walsh or Curtly Ambrose. He was gifted, too, opening the batting and bowling for his local side. “But I just happened to run fast. They said, try track and field, and I continued because it was easy and I was winning.”
By the first year of high school, he was already absurdly fast. His dad told him to give up cricket and concentrate on track and field. “He said I should do running because it's an individual sport, and if you do good, you do good for yourself.” He cracks his fingers — they're the longest I've ever seen.
Bolt talks about his victory at the junior world championships. He was so uptight before the final that he put his shoes on the wrong feet. “I've never been so nervous in my whole life. I was shaking because everybody was expecting me to win or get a medal. That one moment changed my whole life, because after that I was like, why should I worry?” He still thinks it's the greatest race of his life. “I saluted the crowd, they were screaming. I was 15, in front of home crowd — no better feeling.”
But for much of the next three years he was injured. That’s when Jamaica turned on him. His own people said he was undisciplined, he partied too much, he was a good-time boy. And, yes, he did like to party, but the truth was he was suffering from scoliosis. Jamaicans, he says, are always quick to criticise. Even now. He talks about losing to Gay. “I lost one race and it’s this big thing. I went to a party and I met this girl and all of a sudden it's the girl's fault. ‘Oh Usain, he's this, he's that.’ It doesn't bother me, because I know that's how they are.”
He stops and looks at me. “But they're not as bad as you. You guys are awful, man.” The press? “Yeah, you guys are rough on everybody. You put people under so much pressure.” Take the England football team, he says. “You guys set them up by saying they've got to get married early. But you're not ready to settle down. You do not want to get married at 22! Especially if you're famous, because girls are going to be throwing themselves at you. I wouldn't get married now. It would be awful. Wayne Rooney's the same age as me — he's married and got a kid. There's less stress on me. If they say, ‘I saw Usain out with a girl last night’, whatever, cos I'm not married."
Not surprisingly, people have questioned whether somebody can run so fast without taking drugs. “There was one interview, and this guy was saying, ‘You've just come on the scene and now you're running world records, why should we believe you?’ And I was like, first, go check your history. I was world junior champion when I was 15. I got injured, and that delayed me, but you can't come here saying I just popped up." The thing is, he says, he's probably the most tested athlete in the world, so he has nothing to worry about.
His team say that once he knuckles down he can break 9.4 seconds. Bolt believes so. So does that mean he's lazy? “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I am lazy. There's no doubt about that.”
Ricky Simms, his manager, is sitting in with us. Does he agree with that assessment? “Yes, he is lazy. But when he trains, he trains very hard.”
What does he think makes him such a great runner? He looks a little blank. Perhaps the height helps and those huge strides, he suggests.
“Take off your clothes,” Simms says to him. We both look shocked.
“I can't ask him to do that in an interview,” I say. Bolt just sits there giggling. “Look at his body,” Simms says with pride. “He's a specimen. The first time I took him to the track, the stride was like nothing I'd seen before. You know on the Discovery Channel, you see cheetahs, the way their feet move, the way the mechanics of their body work? He's similar.”
I ask about his ambitions. Ultimately, he says, he'd love to play football professionally. He's being deadly serious. One of the perks of being Usain Bolt is that sporting stars love to meet him, so whenever he's travelling and there's time, he tries to train with a top football team. Last year it was Manchester United, a few days ago it was Bayern Munich. He shows me a photo of himself with his arm wrapped round the dwarfed 6ft German forward Miroslav Klose. “If I keep myself in shape, I can definitely play football at a high level,” he says. “With his physical skills, I reckon he could play in the Premier League,” Simms says.