Usain Bolt is running out the clock
In his final summer of competition, what’s left to chase for the world’s fastest man?
Seventeen stories above Manhattan, on a terrace flooded with champagne and beautiful people, Usain Bolt has nowhere to run.
Hosting a Kentucky Derby party for one of his 16 corporate sponsors, Bolt had retreated to a quiet nook for a moment of respite with his best friend and manager, Nugent Walker. It took less than five minutes for the invitation-only crowd to close in, phones weaponized in a filming, tweeting, Snapchatting frenzy.
Bolt responds by turning up the wattage in his smile. He poses with gusto. His broad shoulders bob to the dancehall reggae music. Were he not wearing a purple blazer over a brilliant white shirt, pants and sneakers, Bolt could have easily been approaching the starting line at another Olympic Games.
On this May afternoon, though, the 30-year-old is a month from starting the final lap of his racing career, a series of competitions culminating in the World Championships in London in August. Bolt’s finale will garner him just a fraction of the acclaim as last summer’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics, where he won three sprint gold medal races in an astounding third consecutive Games.
So why didn’t Bolt retire then, at the peak of his fame? What’s left to chase for the world’s fastest man?
The answer is in this high-rise crush. With all the records one man can collect, with even the thrill of victory dulled by his invincibility, Bolt says he is running for his fans.
“A farewell tour, saying bye to my fans, thanks for everything,” Bolt told me before the party. “I don’t think I have anything else left to prove,” he said. “This season is just for the fans, really.”
Bolt spends much of the afternoon hyping the crowd from the DJ booth and blasting cannons of red metallic confetti. It’s clear that whatever he gives his fans during one last summer of speed, the relationship with his audience is what’s pushing him to finish this last lap. There will still be plenty of adoring crowds after London as Bolt transitions to global pitchman, philanthropist and professional partygoer. What will evaporate is the unique jolt of excitement delivered by a stadium full of people who came to witness greatness.
“As soon as you walk out and the crowd gives you that, ‘Ohhhh!’ I’m like, yes!” Bolt says. “It gives you energy. They want to see a performance.”
The Usain Bolt Performance began in 2008, when he broke the 100-meter world record and then shattered his own mark at the Beijing Olympics, running a 9.69 while celebrating the last 10 meters. Ever since, Bolt has utterly dominated his sport.
Eight-time Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt sits down with ESPN to discuss his final season of competitive sprinting and the role the fans have played throughout his career
His world records of 9.58 seconds in the 100 and 19.19 seconds in the 200 feel as monumental as Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point basketball game or Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game baseball hitting streak. He anchored the 4×100 relay record of 36.84 at the 2012 London Games. His three golds in Rio crowned him the “triple-triple” sprint king — no one else has won three golds even twice — although he recently forfeited one relay medal from 2008 because of a teammate’s positive drug test. In the past nine years, Bolt lost only one meaningful race, when he false-started in the 100 at the 2011 world championships and was disqualified.
But Bolt’s legend is built as much on personality as speed. He doesn’t run as much as entertain, from the moment he enters the stadium to when he strikes his iconic “To Di World” victory pose. Winning the actual races has become almost a formality.
“He loves the limelight” of competition, said his agent, Gina Ford. “When he steps on the big stage, he changes. He feeds off the energy of his fans.
“That’s what he’s going to miss,” Ford said.
He has four dates left for his swan song: June 10 in his native Jamaica; June 28 in Ostrava, Czech Republic; July 21 in Monaco; and the World Championships 100-meter final on Aug. 5 in London, where the United Kingdom’s large Jamaican population will send their hero off in grand green-and-gold fashion.
Bolt will run only the 100 and 4×100 relay this summer. He’s skipping the 200, which allows him to avoid much of the grueling preparation he has always disliked. There’s also little risk of losing at the shorter distance. Andre De Grasse was anointed Bolt’s likely successor in Rio after winning bronze in the 100 and silver in the 200. But the 22-year-old Canadian has never run the 100 faster than the 9.91 he posted in Rio. This season, he finished fifth in 10.21 on May 5 in Qatar, and fourth in a wind-aided 9.96 at the Prefontaine Classic May 27 in Oregon. This year’s fastest time of 9.88 was posted by Sydney Siame of Zambia on April 8. Justin Gatlin, the Rio silver medalist, is 35 years old and slowing down since running in the 9.7 range in 2015.
Bolt’s most recent 100 was in Rio, where he cruised to an easy victory in 9.81 seconds.
“I’m not worried about losing,” Bolt said. “The 100 meters, it’s much more technical than anything else. As long as I get in shape and work on my technical aspect of training, I’ll be fine.”
Many transcendent athletes enjoy a farewell tour, soaking up applause and the last experience of competition. Few exit in dominance. Michael Jordan scored 15 points in his last game, as a Washington Wizard. Muhammad Ali was humiliated in his last fight. Pele played one half for each team in his last soccer match, an exhibition game. Kobe Bryant and Derek Jeter had spectacular last games that belied pedestrian final seasons.
Barring injury or other catastrophe, Bolt should cross the finish line in London ahead of the field, spread his arms and receive one last jolt of electric excitement from more than 50,000 fans. He swears it will be his last race.
“I think I’ll be just happy and sad at the same time,” Bolt said.
“I really enjoy track and field. The people come out and they support, the crowd has always been great. I know that London is massive, you know what I mean? So for me, it’s something that I’m really excited about.”
Many more audiences await Bolt. He says he wants to try professional soccer, and he told Sky Sports he plans to work out with Borussia Dortmund of the Bundesliga to “see what happens,” although the ball skills required at that level may leave him looking like Jordan trying to hit professional pitching. There will be a lifetime of parties, commercials and appearances like the Derby party, sponsored by GH Mumm champagne, which has hired Bolt as “chief entertainment officer.” He earned $32.5 million in 2016, including $30 million from endorsements, according to Forbes, and that only counted his income before Rio.
But soon, those audiences will no longer be watching the fastest man on the planet.
“It’s hard to replace that,” said Walker, Bolt’s manager, who grew up with him in rural Trelawny parish, Jamaica. “We will keep busy with events. Do more with his foundation. We have more time now for sponsors. But that feeling from competition, I don’t know how he’s going to replace that.”
Standing beside the DJ booth, Bolt ponders the idea.
“I’ll go to meets just to be in the stadium,” he says.