September 13, 2013 1:31 pm

The Pursuits Interview: Usain Bolt

He’s the incarnation of explosive speed, but in the game he loves best, victory depends on slow-maturing skill
Usain Bolt playing dominoes©Mark Guthrie

Playing dominoes with friends and family at his home in Kingston, Jamaica, February 2010

Usain St Leo Bolt, the fastest man in the world, sinks into a chair in his London hotel and begins to extol the joys of life in the slow lane. “I love playing dominoes – it is a real passion,” says the Jamaican sprinter, stretching out his 6ft 5in frame. “It’s such a wonderful and peaceful game. I sit outside my home [in Kingston] playing with my friends for hours, just talking, chilling, laughing and thinking.”

The subtle, slow-burning pleasures of dominoes seem at odds with Bolt’s effervescent personality, but the game is a national obsession in Jamaica. “I grew up watching my father playing dominoes,” says Bolt, recalling how he learnt to play as a child, hanging out on the veranda of his home in Sherwood Content, a village in northwest Jamaica.

“If you drive past towns on Sundays, you see young people and older people playing outside shops and bars,” he says. “Sometimes you sit down to play dominoes and there are so many people standing around watching, you feel more pressure than on the running track. You need real patience and concentration. It is very technical.”

For Bolt, a game of dominoes is not just a relaxing counterpoint to a high-pressure career. “The game we play is ‘six-love’ so you have to win six games to get a point, and it can get competitive,” he says. “Some people cheat by making codes to their partners, so you have got to know who you’re playing.” Challenging older players sharpens his game: “My coach Glen Mills is good. Courtney Walsh [the retired West Indian cricketer] is good and Beres Hammond [the reggae singer] is very good. Playing with older guys makes me better. The older you get, the easier it becomes because you think more clearly. You also understand how the young mind works because you were young once. After playing these older guys, when I play with ‘the little people’ again, I totally dominate them.”

Bolt’s interest in dominoes carries with it an echo of his tranquil upbringing in the parish of Trelawny, amid the hills and rainforest and yam plantations of Jamaica’s Cockpit Country. He remembers a childhood spent running around playing football and cricket and climbing trees – adventures that brought him speed, strength and good health.

“I love the country and I always will,” he says. “Being in the city you lack a lot because you don’t go out as much, but in the country I was outside all the time – running around barefoot or carrying buckets of water from the river. And in the country you eat more healthily. In cities, at school lunchtime you buy your lunch. In the country, you better go find something in the fields or you won’t eat until dinner time. So we ate a lot of fruit – whatever was in season: apple, guineps [sometimes called Spanish lime] or bananas. It was very healthy.”

It is a sign of the value Bolt places on companion­ship and loyalty that his best friend from Waldensia Primary School, Nugent Walker Junior (“NJ”), is now his personal manager. NJ used to wait at the bottom of Bolt’s garden so the pair could walk to school together; now he escorts Bolt around the world. Today he is watching YouTube videos as Bolt and I chat. “We are best friends but NJ has always been more of an indoors person and is always on the net – an information person,” says Bolt. “I am the one who goes out and sees the world – a people person. So we exchange. It works well. It always has.”

Usain Bolt with his mother, Jennifer©Getty

With his mother, Jennifer

His parents provided a potent mix of discipline and affection – his dressmaker mother, Jennifer, offering the latter. “She spoiled me, man,” he grins. “When my dad was at home, he would wake me at 5.30am, even though school started at 8am. My mum would let me get up at 7am and call a taxi for 7.20am.” His mother also taught him some handy life skills. “I know I can still sew on a button if I need to,” he says. “I don’t want to say it but my mum is kind of lazy, so she would wait until the last minute to alter all the school uniforms for her work, so I often had to help out. I would be sitting there sewing late at night and feeling so pissed off.”

Bolt’s father, Wellesley (known as Gideon), worked for a coffee company and instilled in his son discipline, manners and a respect for elders. Bolt still refers to his primary schoolteacher as “Mr Nugent” and greets any compliment with the word: “Appreciated.” “One thing I always tell my dad is that I was really happy he was strict and disciplined with me. He taught me about hard work and respect. If I needed something I would always get it. If I wanted something, well, that was a different story. But that’s why I work so hard today.”

Bolt has been happy to perpetuate his reputation as “the most naturally gifted athlete the world has ever seen” (his personal Twitter tag) but, despite his preternatural gifts, he works hard for his success. He rises at 6am for sprint sessions at the University of the West Indies running track, where he trains with the Racers Track Club, and performs power lifting, core exercises and plyometric drills (explosive movements such as jumps, hops and bounds) at Kingston’s Spartan Health Club. His coach refers to “the moment of no return” in training – when other athletes will collapse but Bolt pushes on.

Bolt celebrating with a DJ set after his victories©Getty

Celebrating with a DJ set after his victories at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin

His training drills are so punishing that his father cannot watch them. “My parents only see my big competitions so they see me doing run-throughs before track meets and they thought that was it,” he says. “My dad once came to a training session and he couldn’t bear to see me suffering like that. He said: ‘I can’t believe that is what you do.’ Sometimes you vomit in the middle of a session and you still have to finish the programme. Nobody sees these things.”

Bolt’s achievements are driven by a deep religious faith, and he credits a car accident in 2009 – in his BMW M3 on a wet Jamaican road – with crystallising a sense of destiny. “We flipped three times and I came out without a broken finger or a broken arm,” he recalls, shaking his head. “From then on, I thought: ‘OK, I was made to do this.’ A girl said to me on BBM [BlackBerry Messenger]: ‘I am a Catholic but I didn’t pray in public until I saw you on TV signing the cross before a race. Now I am not scared to show my religion.’ People come to me on Facebook and say, ‘Yo, you inspired me to do this or that.’ That is why I run: to inspire people to do great things.”

Not that Bolt’s life is entirely pure. He drinks Guinness, plays marathon video game sessions and goes to nightclubs. “I will never be too old for all that,” he says. “As a young person you should always do what you want to do. As long as it’s moral, respectful and legal, you should do it. Because we work so hard in life and you need time to relax your mind. When I reach a certain age I will look forward to putting off the parties, having a child and being a responsible role model but until then I will enjoy myself.”

His latest toy is a quad bike. “It’s very dangerous but when I’m on my quad bike it brings me joy and fun,” he says. “If I take it out for a spin on the road, I do it as quickly as possible because it is not really supposed to be on the road. But if I have a full day, I take it to the Tru-Juice farm, which is owned by the McConnell family. They have a big orange field, with lots of roads and tracks for the tractors, so we ride on those. It is just dirt and stones and speed and full-on fun.”

Usain Bolt©Mark Guthrie

At home in Kingston, Jamaica, February 2010

The Jamaican sprinter’s three gold medals at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow last month secured his status as the most successful athlete in the history of the competition, but he is already focusing on the Rio 2016 Olympics where he hopes to claim his third consecutive trio of Olympic gold medals. “I want to dominate the sport,” he declares. “To do it at three Olympics would make people think, ‘Wow.’ I am trying to separate myself from just being a normal track athlete to being the greatest athlete in history.”

Might Bolt’s advancing age – he is 27 – and troublesome scoliosis (he suffers from a warped spine, which causes hamstring and back pain that can affect his training) hamper any future world record attempts? Bolt disagrees: “I think it is possible to run faster,” he declares. “The 200m is the easy one because there is so much room to improve. The 100m is harder as the start is always a problem for me because I am tall. I had an argument with my coach about this. He thinks the best time to break records is in a one-off event after a big championship because you run yourself into your best shape and you don’t have lots of rounds. But I think it will happen at a championship because I perform best in the big moment, when the pressure is on. We’ll see who is right.”

 

For now, Bolt has a competition closer to home to think about. “I am in the middle of a dominoes tournament against four girls who play football and train near my track in Jamaica,” he says. “They were boasting about how good they are, and I thought: I’m not going to let these girls beat me. We go at each other hard but we are winning 4-2 at the moment.”

Jamaica hosted the World Dominoes Championships last year, and has been petitioning for the inclusion of dominoes as an Olympic sport. Would Bolt return for one last gold medal in, say, 2044? “That would be kind of cool, wouldn’t it?” he says, with a deep chuckle. “But I have a lot of practice to do first.”

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‘Faster than Lightning: My Autobiography’ by Usain Bolt is published by Harper Sport (£20).

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