As he prepares to run his final race, Usain Bolt has issued a blunt warning to fellow track and field athletes: Stop doping or the sport will die.
During a press conference in London on Tuesday, the Jamaican sprinter said the scandal surrounding state-sponsored doping by Russia has represented a new low for athletics and the sport has nowhere to go but up. However, he said athletes still need to do more to stamp out cheating.
“Over the years I think we’re doing a better job,” he said. “It’s getting clean, we’re catching up to a lot of athletes. …Hopefully athletes will see what’s going on in sports and understand that if they don’t stop what they are doing, then sports will die. Hopefully they understand what they need to do as athletes to help sports move forward.”
Mr. Bolt plans to race the 100 metres and 4×100 relay at the world track and field championships which start on Friday in London. The races will mark the end of an illustrious career that has seen him win eight Olympic gold medals, 11 world titles and set six world records. And while he has been hobbled somewhat by injuries recently and has only raced three times this year, Mr. Bolt has lost none of his famous and lovable bravado.
He joked on Tuesday that he’d already written a headline for his final 100m on Saturday. “Usain Bolt is retiring unbeatable,” he said. “Unbeatable, unstoppable.” Then he turned toward a group of journalists and added: “Write it down.”
Those same words from almost any other athlete would seem beyond arrogant and send eyes rolling, but few would argue with Mr. Bolt. After all, he has spent nearly 10 years delivering extraordinary results, winning a legion of fans along the way and becoming the saving grace of a troubled sport beset by doping. Now 30 years old, he still holds the three fastest times ever run in the 100m, including the world record of 9.58 seconds. He also holds five of the 10 best times in the 200m, in addition to the world best time of 19.19 seconds.
Asked if he was still the man to beat in London, Mr. Bolt didn’t hesitate: “Without a doubt.”
“It’s a championship, it’s a final, so it’s all about who can keep their nerve, who is ready to challenge because I’ve been here many times,” he added. “It’s just go time, so let’s go.”
Tuesday’s press conference was vintage Bolt, sprinkled with more than a dash of hype from his long-time shoe sponsor Puma. There were video tributes from actors Samuel L. Jackson and Idris Elba along with model Cara Delevingne and former soccer star Thierry Henry. Mr. Bolt’s parents joined him on stage and Puma presented him with special gold and purple shoes for Saturday’s race emblazoned with “Forever Fastest” on the sides. Mr. Bolt picked the colours himself; purple because it was the colour of his high-school sports teams and gold because “I’m the golden boy.”
There was no talk of rivals on Tuesday or Mr. Bolt’s relatively modest performances heading into the world championships. He’s well off the fastest times of the year, although he did run 9.95 in Monaco last month. When one Jamaican reporter dared to ask Mr. Bolt to contemplate losing on Saturday, he was quickly shot down. “It’s not going to happen. Don’t worry,” Mr. Bolt told the reporter.
And for Canadians who thought Mr. Bolt had some kind of special relationship with our own sprint sensation, Andre De Grasse, or viewed the 22-year-old as a potential threat: Forget it.
“I don’t know,” Mr. Bolt said when asked to characterize his relationship with Mr. De Grasse. “I see him around, I say hi. That’s it, I guess. I don’t have his [phone] number or anything.”
When pressed to comment on Mr. De Grasse as a challenger, Mr. Bolt was lukewarm. He acknowledged that the Canadian had won a bronze in the 100m and silver in the 200m at the Rio Olympics, but added: “I don’t know where his career is going to go.”
“The fact that he’s won a bronze medal and he’s won a silver shows that he has talent, so we’ll see what happens in the future, it’s all about consistency. We’ll see what happens,” he said.
Mr. De Grasse, too, has played down any sense of rivalry, despite some memorable scenes in Rio when the two smiled at each other as they crossed the finish line in the semi-finals. “It’s not a rivalry,” Mr. De Grasse told Britain’s Daily Mail this week. “He has dominated for so long. I’ve still not beaten him – but I’d love to. To have a rivalry, you have to have a back and forth. He is on his way out and a veteran. I’m trying to prove myself.”
Still, the Canadian comes into London as a serious contender, having run a wind-aided 9.69 this season and won his last three Diamond League races in June. He’s also a clear favourite in the 200m in Mr. Bolt’s absence.
“Andre has certainly demonstrated in the last couple of years at least through Rio that he can handle the pressure,” Canadian head coach Glenroy Gilbert said.
But Tuesday was all about Usain Bolt and his legacy. He tried to put his career into some perspective, noting that he started out as a cricket player at the age of 6 and only turned to track when a coach noticed how fast he ran when bowling. His only dream then was to win the 200m at the Olympics, and his first gold medal in that event – at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, where he also broke the world record – remains his most memorable race.
“I never knew I could break the world record in the 200m. That was my main dream growing up. I always wanted to become a 200m Olympic champion,” he said.
As for his future, Mr. Bolt isn’t sure what he’ll do when he retires after the world championships. And he knows that whatever he does, from playing soccer to possibly acting, it won’t come close to the adrenalin rush of racing down a track at top speed faster than anyone else.
“It’s going to be hard because track and field is everything for me,” he said. “I’ve been doing it since I was 10 years old. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
He was clear about one thing: He hopes that none of his records are broken during his lifetime. “I want to brag to my kids when they are 15 or 20 and say, ‘Look, see I’m still the best.’”
PAUL WALDIE – EUROPEAN CORRESPONDENT
LONDON — The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Aug. 01, 2017 10:04PM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Aug. 01, 2017 10:14PM EDT