The world of sport loses one of its most electrifying stars next month when Usain Bolt finally gives the world a chance to catch up with him and retires.
Lightning Bolt, renowned as much for his Cheshire cat grin and likeable, laid-back attitude, is hanging up his spikes for good after the IAAF World Championships in London, having lit up athletics for the last 15 years.
Clad in the famous yellow, green and black of his beloved Jamaica, 30-year-old Bolt has thundered his way into the sprinting record books in that time, proving far too quick for the competition ever since he stormed to 200m gold at the 2002 World Junior Championships.
In front of a home crowd in Kingston, a 15-year-old Bolt took his first steps towards becoming the new king of sprinting as his triumph made him the youngest world-junior gold medalist ever.
His coronation was confirmed in 2008 when he first broke compatriot Asafa Powell’s 100m record at the Reebok Grand Prix in New York in May, running 9.72 seconds in just his fifth senior 100m race, before taking 100m and 200m gold at the Olympic Games in Beijing three months later.
Bolt went on to repeat that feat at the 2012 and 2016 Games and he will retire in joint fourth on the list of most successful track athletes of all time.
In terms of his character and the manner in which the sprint king has dominated his field, he’s reminiscent of Carl Lewis – yet as much as Bolt has endeared himself to the world, the American great is not much of a fan.
The legendary Lewis – the second most successful track athlete ever with 10 Olympic medals (nine gold) – feels that although the Trelawny-born speedster has enjoyed great success personally, sprinting itself has deteriorated in the shadow of Bolt’s brilliance.
“People dwell too much on winning races and getting medals,” Lewis, 56, told Sport360.
“Ultimately that’s irrelevant. He’s (Bolt) had great success, other people have had great success, but our sport’s declining.
“What’s relevant is the athletes asking themselves what they need to do to build a better brand and business so that people will want to come see us, so that everyone, the middle class athletes, have an opportunity to earn a living, because right now, they’re not.
“When I came in to track and field it was amateur and we changed it to professional. I treated it like a business. Looked at the balance sheet in terms of success. It wasn’t just a great show. Was the sport sold out, did it expand? I think there’s an opportunity to change direction a little.
“Since 1997 the sport’s been on a steady decline. Nothing has stopped it. Maybe now with Sebastian (Coe, IAAF president) and a better understanding, we can start convincing the athletes that you have to go beyond yourself to build the sport.
“Because if the sport’s not building, your success doesn’t matter. I think now there’ll be a better focus on the entire balance sheet of the sport rather than just two or three people that are doing very well as the sport’s dying around them.”
Carl Lewis says Usain Bolt has won a lot, but done little to raise sprinting’s profile
There has been little love lost between Lewis and Bolt over the years – with the veteran sprinter and long-jumper having previously questioned Bolt’s rapid progress in his formative years that led to record-setting performances, as well as the stringency of Jamaica’s drug-testing programme.
“For someone to run 10.03 one year and 9.69 the next, if you don’t question that in a sport that has the reputation it has right now, you’re a fool. Period,” was Lewis’ damning assessment of Bolt’s Beijing performances back in 2008.
Bolt said he “lost all respect” for Lewis after winning his second 100m and 200m Olympic double at London 2012, setting a new Olympic record of 9.64sec in the 100m. “I think a lot of these guys who sit and talk, especially Lewis, no-one really remembers who he is, so he is just looking for attention,” Bolt had said about people accusing him of using performance-enhancing drugs.
Despite the friction between them, comparisons are inevitably drawn. Lewis won 100m and 200m gold at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 in addition to the 4x100m and long jump.
The two have also been compared to the legendary Jesse Owens, who won the exact same four medals as Lewis in the only Games he ever competed in, Berlin, in 1936. But, even then, Lewis distances himself from the fun-loving Jamaican.
“Well, we’re different,” says Lewis, bluntly. “Jesse Owens and I were obviously a lot more similar because of the events we competed in. We were long jumpers that sprinted.
“We’re also Americans and when you’re American there’s a different scrutiny, a different level of expectations. As Americans we’re the richest country in the world, so when we’re successful, money follows you. Whether it was me, Jesse, Edwin Moses, Michael Johnson, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, when we’re successful, America’s excited so American corporations are excited.
“When we’re not successful, there are no American sponsors at the IAAF anymore, they’re gone. I hate to say it but it’s important for Americans to be successful. Our country and sponsors are excited about our sport.”
Aside from his prowess on the track, Bolt is known for his trademark sense of humour too. From striking his signature ‘Lightning Bolt’ pose after races, easing up ahead of the finish line and glancing over at opponents, or his famed love of preparing for races by eating Chicken McNuggets – Bolt claimed to have consumed 1,000 during the 2008 Olympics.
It is another side to Bolt Lewis finds unappealing and something he feels American athletes would be chastised for, rather than embraced.
“He had fun and did his thing but as an American, we couldn’t do that,” said Lewis.
“We can never get away with the things he did. We would get crucified. It’s just different. It’s the old saying, ‘if you’re American you’re kind of forced to act like you’ve already been there’.
“Can you imagine LeBron James acting like that? He would just get destroyed in America. So we have to think in a different way.”
Lewis on his way to a fourth straight long jump gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics
Looking back on his own career, it’s hard not to argue that Lewis was actually a better athlete than Bolt. Both faced worthy opponents during the height of his career but were seemingly untouchable, although there can be no debating Lewis’ greater versatility.
The Houston native won more medals than Bolt – nine gold and one silver – at four different Games, including bowing out with a fourth-straight Olympic long jump gold days after his 35th birthday at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
“When I retired I felt like I completed everything I could. I left with no regrets. When I look back it’s just I had a great time,” admitted Lewis.
“My biggest accomplishment though isn’t even a medal. It’s the longevity. When I look back I think how did I do four in a row and win four in a row. First I was 22, in the last I was 35 around a lot of 22-year-olds. So that’s what I’m really proud of, the longevity.”
Lewis’ parents, William and Evelyn, were both involved in athletics and he credits them with influencing his huge success and the longevity he proudly speaks of.
Lewis said: “They were involved in sports. Mum was a hurdler, dad was a coach and they ran programmes. It goes back to my grandfather who was a preacher and innovator in his community. My parents were the first to go to college in their families.
“They were involved in the civil rights movement. My mother was a feminist in the 60’s. I got involved in athletics because she wanted a girl’s track team, because it was not offered to girls in school.
“They had a huge influence on what I was doing. Fortunately they had the other kids around so they didn’t have to dwell on my lack of success early on. And fortunately we had a lot of success later on.”
Another route that brings the conversation back towards Bolt is the strict diet Lewis adhered to during his glory days. As Bolt seemingly gorged on junk food and perhaps leant more on his talent, Lewis was a driven student of the sport, constantly tweaking his regime searching for an edge.
It’s a mentality that has also seen him enjoy success since retiring. He is currently an athletics coach at the University of Houston. He also owns his own business, is a UN ambassador, public speaker and has even appeared in several films, as well as briefly running for the New Jersey Senate in 2011.
He turned vegan aged 28 and spoke about how it benefitted his career at Daman’s ‘Creating Healthy Communities’ held in Abu Dhabi last October.
“I felt then and still strongly now that the lighter you are the faster you can run and the higher you can jump,” said Lewis.
“My diet (during my career) was not healthy because I was dieting all the time to keep my weight down and I needed to eat to get the proper calories and nutrition.
“I went vegan young, at 28. That allowed me to eat three meals a day with snacks but still keep weight in check. I stayed mostly a vegan or vegetarian since then, even today.”
QUICK OUT OF THE BLOCKS
The first medal, there’s nothing like that first Olympic gold medal. You grow up dreaming of going to the Olympics. And now you’re here. So nothing will take that away. But also the last one, Atlanta because I knew I was retiring. So it was a bookend. To win four in a row, I never would have imagined that.
100m in Tokyo probably. Because I went so long and then got it. But one that’s forgotten, believe it or not, is my first world record. At the time I didn’t dwell on it because it was in the context of what I was trying to do. My first in 1981, I was 19, the long jump record. I went 66 long jump events undefeated (until defeated by Mike Powell at 1991 World Championships). When we got it I was like ‘OK, we got it’. I didn’t give it much due. I didn’t expect to get it that quickly. And I still hold it. I’ve broken it since but I’ve held it since that day in February ’81.
Favourite venue or stadium?
I loved competing at home in Houston because I travelled so much. And my last meet was in Houston. I enjoyed Berlin, that big wonderful stadium. And Zurich is a meet everyone loves. There were a lot of places I enjoyed going, Tokyo. Stockholm. I didn’t have a favourite. For me it was more I enjoyed the cities. When I travelled our manager Joe Douglas would make us go to a museum or something, learn about the community, and we always ate local food. A lot of kids went there and ate fast food from America. It was something I learned years ago, wherever you go, become part of the culture.