Two years ago, at the end of the last athletics World Championships in Beijing, Usain Bolt sat, hands on shins, on the stadium warm-up track and wearily intimated that his illustrious career was coming to a close.
“It’s not as fun as it used to be,” he said. “The older I get, the less fun it is. It takes up more of your time and you have to sacrifice a lot more. Normally I could just party for a while and enjoy myself. But the older you get, you can’t party as much.
“Gotta cut back going out drinking. Gotta start eating properly, go to bed early, stuff like that, and for me it’s no fun. I hate doing something I don’t really enjoy. I want to get back into the real world. Just chill. Go to bed very late. Just be me and be like a human again.”
Twelve months later at the Olympic Games in Rio, normal exuberant and exhilarating service was resumed. Over those 16 memorable days he became a three-times Olympic champion again, in the 100m, 200m and sprint relay – a total of nine consecutive Olympic gold medals that seared his name into the record books and confirmed his status as the world’s greatest-ever athlete.
The man who had single-handedly put the smile back on the drugs-scarred face of international athletics was, himself, rightly ecstatic, though his rarely absent grin no doubt went missing after the first of those sprint relay golds, from Beijing 2008, was stripped from him in January after a team-mate retrospectively tested positive for drugs.
So what now in London? Bolt has already said he won’t be competing in the 200m, so might Olympic gratification have dulled his appetite for the hard yards that are necessary to fend off successors to his crown? Might frailty be creeping into that fabulously sculpted 6ft 5in, 30-year-old frame?
We’ll get a sense of his athletic mortality on Friday, the opening night of the IAAF World Championships London 2017, as Bolt unleashes his 2.4m stride in the first round of the 100m.
Two men who became firm friends with the sprinter during the build-up to Rio are in little doubt that lightning will, indeed, strike twice in London. “Knowing him, he’ll just turn up and get it done,” says Ben Turner. “He’ll be in whatever shape he needs to be in to win. He will find a way.”
Ben and his brother Gabe are London-based film-makers who spent months working with Bolt on an absorbing 2016 documentary, I Am Bolt (available on Amazon Video now).
They filmed with him at home in Jamaica – sprinting across a dusty track while dragging what looks to be an old piece of farm machinery, racing quad bikes (“The only rule is if you take out an orange tree, you have to pay for it”) and dancing at an island nightclub – and tailed him around the world as he prepared to race, first at the World Championships in Beijing in 2015, then at the Olympics in Rio.
“The only time he ever got fed up with us was for constantly asking permission to do things,” says Gabe. “He’d just say, ‘Make yourself at home. If you want a cup of tea, make one, don’t keep asking me.’”
The thing that brought the Turner brothers and Bolt together was a shared love of football. They had just released The Class of ’92, their much-lauded 2013 film about Manchester United’s golden generation – and Bolt, when he’s not wearing the yellow of his beloved Jamaica, can often be seen sporting the colours of United.
“He and his manager had seen Class of ’92 and loved it,” says Ben. “It was actually one of the easiest pitches we had ever done. He didn’t have any conditions. He was completely open with everything. He just said, ‘One day I won’t be a runner any more, I’ll just be some old dude, and I’ll want to show my kids or grandkids what I achieved. I could make that film myself or I could get you to make it.’ And that’s how it happened.”
They shook hands on the deal in Munich. Bolt was there during Oktoberfest for an important recovery session of physio, as well as a little immersion in the local culture.
“If you google ‘Bolt and lederhosen’ you’ll see the pictures and they give you a sense of the man,” says Gabe. “What you see with him is definitely what you get. His public persona and private persona are the same. He’s just the most charismatic, good-natured man to be around.”
All of which could suggest someone a bit cavalier about his preparation. Not so, says older brother Ben. “Usain could probably get away with doing less than most, but he would still do three or four sessions during the day and he pushes himself through the pain barrier every time. He doesn’t just need to want it – he needs to want it more than anyone else in the world. It’s a superhuman level of commitment.”
So in all the time they spent with him, what do they remember best? Gabe first: “It has to be Beijing in 2015. I felt I was in the presence of the greatest competitor of all time. Watching him beat Justin Gatlin through sheer determination and mental strength was amazing.”
And Ben? “Weirdly, it was quite a bad interview we did with him in Rio. We were at the training track on the day before his first heat and he gave me nothing at all. But I realised he was just in game mode.”