With his broad grin and relaxed, languid running style, Usain Bolt often looked like he was going for a jog in the park rather than competing as the fastest man in the world.
Few athletes have been so dominant in their sport that they have time to pose and smile for the cameras mid-race, but Bolt wasn’t like other sprint stars.
The viral image of the Jamaican grinning as he approached the line in his 100m semifinal at Rio 2016 encapsulated the joy he brought to athletics every time he stepped onto the track.
Bolt’s list of achievements in the sport is almost as long as his stride. There are eight Olympic golds — which also made him the first sprinter in history to win gold medals in the 100m and 200m at three consecutive Games — 11 World Championship golds and world records in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay that no athlete has since come close to touching.
Now 34 and retired from athletics since 2017, Bolt has had time to reflect on a remarkable career. Of his numerous accolades, however, there is one that stands out well above the rest for the Jamaican
“It’s always going to be the [Olympic] gold medals,” without hesitation Bolt tells CNN Sport. “I think that’s what really stamped my authority on the sport, you know what I mean, I showed my dominance throughout the years.
“Yeah I’m very proud of being the fastest man in the world, but it takes so much to do three back-to-back Olympic and win those, so for me I’m most proud of my gold medals.”
These days, the debate around breaking track and field world records is often accompanied by discussions on how big a role is being played by developments in shoe technology.
Bolt says he isn’t worried should his records eventually be broken with the help of such technology, rather than pure physical prowess.
“The fact that everyone will know why, then it doesn’t bother me,” he explains. “As I said, I’m happy to be the fastest man in the world, but it was always the gold medals that really mattered to me because that’s how you really prove yourself, you know what I mean.
“There are so many people that could say: ‘I’m a former world record holder,’ but there are not a lot of people who can say: ‘I won — well, just me — three Olympic gold medals back-to-back.’
“So for me, this is why I pushed myself so hard to dominate, because I know at any point in time somebody can just break your record and then if you put so much on that, then what do you have left?”
A winning bet
He might have broken world records and won numerous gold medals, but that didn’t stop Bolt from indulging his love of fast food.
In his 2013 autobiography “Faster than Lightning,” Bolt estimates he ate 1,000 McDonald’s chicken nuggets during his 10 days in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics Games. Remarkably, those 5000 calories and 300 grams of fat per day powered him to three gold medals and three world records.
Around the same time, Bolt made a bet with coach Glen Mills and agent Ricky Sims, who were both adamant the athlete’s fast food cravings meant he would develop “a big gut” within two years of retirement.
Much to their disappointment, Bolt still maintains his lean athletic physique three-and-a-half years after retiring. So have Mills and Sims paid up?
“No!” he laughs. “We had a back and forth because they were saying: ‘Oh, it [the bet] was three years. I was like: ‘No, it’s two!’ So it was a back and forth and then we just said forget it because they didn’t want to pay after two years because they’re like: ‘Oh, I’m still in shape.’ So they weren’t happy!”
Just like the rest of us, athletes get cravings for their guilty pleasure foods. However, as with everything, it’s all about eating in moderation, especially when you’re no longer training for hours on end every day.
“For me, you kind of learn and understand that exercise is very, very important, even just walking just to keep yourself healthy, you know what I mean,” he says.
“Over the years, I’ve learned so much about weight and just nutrition, so I understand the necessary steps I need to take to make sure I’m healthy. I’m having a family and I want to make sure I’m around to see them, you know.”
Life after athletics
Life for Bolt looks a lot different now than it did four years ago.
In May, he became a father for the first time after his partner Kasi Bennett gave birth to a baby girl, who they fittingly named Olympia Lightning Bolt.
The majority of his day is spent with Olympia and Kasi, before he finds the time to squeeze in a workout to “keep the weight off.”
Bolt says he has also been hard at work with post-career endeavors, including work with new sponsors.
The sprint star and former USWNT player Abby Wambach are the faces of Gatorade’s new campaign, which pays homage to the classic “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” commercial, originally featuring Michael Jordan and Mia Hamm.
While some athletes struggle to come to terms with retirement, Bolt is very much enjoying his.
The build up to Tokyo 2020 is unlike anything he has experienced for almost two decades — it’s the first Olympics ‘Lightning Bolt’ won’t be competing at since the Sydney Games in 2000 — but there will be no wishing he was back out there on the track again.
“I’m definitely excited to just be in the stands,” he says. “I’ve never got an opportunity to really watch Olympic Games, to either go [watch] swimming, the soccer or just to see all the events. So I’m excited to actually get the chance to really experience Olympics like a true fan.”
Since Bolt stepped away from athletics, the sport has been trying to find the next generation of athletes to be its torchbearers. Unfortunately, as it did with other sports around the round, the coronavirus pandemic curtailed the athletics season and, eventually, forced the Tokyo Games’ postponement until 2021.
Given the impact of the stunted schedule on most athletes, Bolt believes it’s only fair to allow them a prolonged period of preparation before burdening them with being the sport’s next leading lights.
“You know, normally I would always say who I think, but now I just sit back and watch,” he says. “Especially after the pandemic, a lot of people have sat out the season without getting a chance to compete even once.
“So now that the fact that it’s going to start, I’m just going to watch see how the season goes and then I can say: ‘You know what, this person looks like they were serious. They kept themselves in shape during the pandemic.’ So we just have to sit and watch and see what happens.”