Usain Bolt and Joan Smalls:
Cut to the Chase
Model Joan Smalls trails the World's fastest sprinter, Usain Bolt, as a documentary crew tracks his every stride.
To hear him tell it, Usain Bolt wins the race at the beginning, long before he crosses the finish line. When the starting gun fires, the fastest man in the world is, believe it or not, at a sort of disadvantage, as close as he will come in any given 100-meter race to being a mortal, albeit a mortal in a field of superhumans. Because the 25-year-old champion is so tallsix feet fivehe has a slower start than the typical sprinter; the race is his to lose in the first 40 meters.
You saw it happen over and over in 2007, and then again in 2008, the year he completely revised the way the world thinks about the 100-meter dash. At the gun, Bolt seems to almost lumber from the starting blocks; quicker legs scurry around him. In the first four steps, he is perhaps his most tactically concentrated. "I have to work so hard to get everything right," he was telling me the other day, relaxing after a long winter of pre-London strength training, at home in Kingston, Jamaica. "You've got to get up to top speed. It takes time 'cause I'm taller."
But then, as those first few feet come to an end, he taps some secret rocket-fuel supply and the disadvantage is transformed: Those same too-long legs become a world recordsetting asset. The distance between him and everyone else begins with a crack of daylight, around step five, and then, as the racers hit their maximum velocity, the widening gap makes it seem as if the other runners are in the next heat. Whereas a typical championship sprinter might take 45 strides to race 100 meters, Bolt uses about 40. "I have an advantage for the last 60 meters," he says.
So it was in May 2008 when he ran 9.72 seconds, a world record that eclipsed his previous record of 9.76, which critics had disparaged, calling it a onetime lucky shot. And then again in Beijing in August, when in the first seconds, it looked as if he was just making it out of the gates, but he finished at an astounding 9.69. With that, Bolt effectively shifted the goal of sprinting from sub-10 to somewhere around sub-9.5 seconds. Commentators and fans wondered: What if Bolt had not looked back to mock his competitors, as he seemed to during Beijing? What if he had not celebrated in the final few strides? Would he have done better? As if to answer, exactly one year later, he set a new record: 9.58.
Will the fastest man go faster? A mathematical-sciences professor at Cambridge estimates that if Bolt could improve his start time (relatively poor as it is) and run in an advantageous wind condition at an altitude of around 1,000 meters, then he could get his speed down to 9.45.
You might think that someone with such fire and showmanship would be intense, maybe even arrogant to speak with, but the fastest man is actually funny, easy to talk tohe takes his running seriously but conversation lightly, even when thinking about London. "Yeah," he says, "if I get the technical aspect right, then it shouldn't be a problem."
Bolt grew up in Trelawny, an area of northwest Jamaica known for runners, caves, and yams. ("It is definitely the Trelawny yam," his father explained to Reuters after Bolt won the gold in 2008.) Bolt started out playing cricket until a coach noticed his stride and persuaded him to run track. Shortly after, in 2001, at age fourteen, he won two silver medals at the CARIFTA Games, a highly competitive Caribbean event. A year later, he began breaking records: In 2002, he became the youngest-ever gold medalist at the World Junior Championships. "I was definitely surprised,'' Bolt said after he won. Injuries slowed him down, until in 2008, fully recovered, he switched (informally) from Bolt to Lightning Bolt, the guy who rewrote the men's sprint while surviving only on Chicken McNuggets, due to his unfamiliarity with Olympic village food. (He claims to eat well when in Jamaica, despite his taste for Pringles and Skittles.)
It hasn't been all gold medals since he sprinted onto the world stage in 2008. Bolt was disqualified from the 100-meter at the 2011 World Championships after a controversial false start, raising questions that his record-setting days were over. His training partner and rising running star, Yohan Blake, a 21-year-old Jamaican, won the race, despite a video that seemed to indicate the false start might not have been Bolt's fault. Bolt was visibly distraught at the time of the call, but when he issued a statement shortly after, it was to congratulate Blake, proving himself to be a classy contender as well as a flashy, exploding sprinter.
Bolt was on the losing side of another false start last summer, when Prince Harry traveled to Jamaica. Before the two knelt down at the blocks, the prince took off. Once again, Bolt was cool, wrapping his arm around the young royal. These days, Bolt is like royalty, and Jamaica's prime minister gave the prince a statue of the "King of Track and Field." When Bolt challenged the prince to a rematch in London this summer, he wisely replied, "I'm busy." Presumably, Bolt will be too.
When I spoke with him, Bolt was gearing up for speed work, the training phase set to take him into the Olympic Games. The rumor in Kingston was that Bolt's father had been talking about how ready his son was, and while that was just a rumor, there is a certain amount of understandable palpable island pride. One of Jamaica's more renowned citizens, Cedella Marley, the designer/singer and daughter of Bob Marley, has an inside track on the Jamaican team, as she is designing the uniforms in collaboration with Puma. "Well, I mean, my house is splashed with pictures of Usain and the Olympic team," she says. "But I did think, how can I ever make Usain look more gorgeous than he already is?"
Marley, like many Jamaicans, notes that Bolt is already a local legend, young enough to still be seen around Kingston enjoying himself. He will jog with kids through the streets or mug with fans on a dance floor ("I love to dance," he says). At the moment his favorite place is Fiction, a Kingston club, where he is known to strike his famous lightning-bolt pose (which is actually an old dance-hall move). And such is the celebrity culture in Kingston that he eats quietly if he likes, undisturbed.
In his autobiography Usain Bolt: 9.58, Bolt offered himself to Manchester United at the end of his running career, for real. (It sometimes seems as if he is smashing world records just for a chance to play professional soccer.) "Hopefully they make an offer for me to play," he says. Then again, he might just rather be a DJ. On the European track circuit after meets, he wouldsorry, but it's truebolt for the VIP tent, to scratch out some tunes. And he is good. Still, he would not dare to DJ at Fiction, or anywhere in Jamaica, for that matter. Yes, he is serious about his hobby, but he says, Jamaica is serious, too. "It's not like overseas, where you can just enjoy the music and play," he tells me. "In Jamaica, you've got to be on key. You gotta know exactly what to do, to get the crowd hyped, or else you will probably get booed." This from a man who, lapping post-world-record-breaking sprints, has proved himself a master of crowd control.
Which would be easier, I ask him: playing professional soccer or spinning tunes in Kingston? He laughs but answers without missing a beat: "I think football is much easier."