It was a relief, quite frankly, to see him in London at all. Bolt had alarmed the world three weeks ago by pulling out of the Jamaican trials with a minor hamstring tear, an injury that threatened briefly to sabotage the poetry of his third and final Olympics. The thought seemed too dire to contemplate. No Bolt, no party. But he swaggered into his Tower Bridge hotel on Thursday with an ebullience to suggest he had been playing us all along.
Not only did he claim that he had “no worries” about the offending hamstring, he even made the bracing statement that he felt ready to break his own 200 metres world record at next month’s Games in Rio de Janeiro. Exasperated by arguments that he was past his peak, Bolt suggested that he could still defy all doubters by running faster than the 19.19 seconds he managed in Berlin in 2009. “This is where history is going to be made,” he said. “I’m looking forward to putting on a show for the entire world to see.”
In its way, this was a vintage Bolt performance, complete with grandiose predictions, endearing self-regard, and even a less-than-subtle dig at his chief rival over 100m, Justin Gatlin. Bolt, who beat the American by one-hundredth of a second at the World Championships in Beijing last year, wasted no chance to crow at Gatlin’s expense as he prepared for another defining duel in Brazil.
Asked if he was psychologically the stronger of the two, Bolt replied: “I’m definitely tougher. Gatlin was just not ready, he was not used to being chased. He hadn’t had a tough competitor. Finally he did, with me.”
Usain Bolt knocked over by man on Segway after crushing Justin Gatlin in World Championship 200mPlay! 01:09
Before the braggadocio can bear fruit, though, Bolt has plenty to prove to himself on Friday night at the Anniversary Games in London. A little before 10pm, he will line up in the 200m, an event where he is yet to register an official time all season. It is an intriguing choice: for eight years Bolt has looked unassailable in the longer sprint, but the presence in Rio of LaShawn Merritt, who has run 19.74 this year and announced his intention to try for the Michael Johnson-esque double over 200 and 400m, seems likely to keep him honest.
Bolt’s exquisitely serene nature is such that he likes to leave his plans to the last minute. Jamaica’s sprint relay team have not even trained together yet, but he expressed little fear that once the time came, they would still sweep all before them. Would the British quartet stand the slightest chance? “It’s very slim, I must say,” he reminded us, with gentle pity.
For an athlete already quantum shifts removed from his nearest competitors, Bolt has much to consider with Rio looming. He craves, perhaps deserves, the perfect ending, the cinematic bookend that would confirm him as the first person ever to win three successive Olympic 100m titles. Fail, and his compatriot Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, champion in the women’s 100m in Beijing and London, could beat him to it.
He remains desperate, too, for a ‘treble-treble’ of Olympic sprint glory, an unprecedented feat that would satisfy the filmmakers out in Brazil, who are following his every move for a future biopic. It is eloquent testimony to Bolt’s supreme status that while no other runner has taken gold over 100, 200 and the 4x100m relay at the same major championship more than once, he has done so five times. “This is where I need to make a big mark,” he said. “I’ve had a slight setback, but I’m happy with the progress I’m making. I know, once the competition starts, that I’ll be ready.”
Usain Bolt's career so far - in 90 secondsPlay! 01:30
So blinkered is Bolt this summer that he regards the spectre of Russian doping, illustrated by the absence of the country’s track and field stars from Rio, as a mere frippery. “I don’t stress about these things,” he explained. “I always leave it up to the big heads to make the decision. For me it’s neither here nor there. It’s really a sideshow, and if you get caught up in it, you lose focus on the task at hand. So, I don’t watch or keep a note.”
Bolt on Russian Olympic ban: Sad but rules are rulesPlay! 01:26
Lest this sounds a little louche or blasé on Bolt’s part, he did agree that the punishment of the Russians would serve as a powerful deterrent. As he stretched out his left arm to reveal a small adhesive bandage over the mark left by his latest drug test, he lamented the “really bad” doping problem that has disfigured his sport. “It’s a good message to show that if you cheat or you go against the rules, then we’re going to take serious action,” he said. “This ban will scare a lot of people, or send a strong message that we are serious, that we want a clean sport.”
Bolt has never failed a test, but the mistakes of others mean that even he has not stayed immune to the fall-out of the ever-proliferating drugs scandal. In June, a re-examination of athletes’ B-samples from the Beijing Olympics of 2008 found that Nesta Carter, Bolt’s former relay partner, had tested positive for traces of methylhexanamine, a banned stimulant.
While he could yet find himself stripped of the gold that he and Carter won together at the Bird’s Nest eight years ago, Bolt refused to despair. “It would be disappointing, but rules are rules,” he shrugged. “What can I do?” The only solution, he recognises, to soothe the anguish across athletics, is to offer a reminder in Rio of what he does better than anybody there has ever been.