I just finished watching the I am Bolt documentary featuring the legendary Usain Bolt and his ascension to stardom and my heart is so full. I feel nourished. I don’t know what it is about athletics but watching it triggers something deep in my soul. I think it’s the fact that we see what we recognise as a journey from beginning to end in the quickest snapshot – under 10 seconds.
We hear about rags to riches all of the time. Athletics personifies that concept with its capturing of athletes at the starting line, knees bent and crouching to the ground, as if in humility. A sea of differences stand behind this line: people of different backgrounds bow behind this line. Yes they may be of the same sex, of the same race and even the same country/island, but they are different. They represent different times and experiences – different wombs. And they’re all in this beginning position to set off from the womb.
A bullet splits from the gun and every single individual fires off at an accelerated rate.
Some lift quicker than others, their agility propelling them from the floor. Others are punchier and power forwards. Usain, tends to be different from the rest: his limbs being longer mean that gathering his feet up under himself takes longer. The phase of starting is not identical between any athlete: everyone has a style to get themselves off of the ground. Much like life.
Then comes a transitional phase. From keeping head bowed and shoulders locked to loosening your limbs and developing a pace. Gaps are produced. Some flail, others push. As said before, everyone has a running technique, but the beauty of difference here is testament to how some of us quite literally get a head-start in life. Throughout Usain’s career, it has been highlighted that his start is not the best part of his race. Watching the I am Bolt documentary, I found that to be both figuratively and literally true.
Usain was a country boy, born and raised in a rural part of Jamaica. His parents were hardworking – particularly his father, who was said to have worked early nights and late evenings on a coffee farm. If you’re looking for a humble beginning, Usain’s story is it. The irony of his surname being Bolt quite literally was a pre-determination to what would be his future greatness.
There is no mention of him having siblings: just himself, his mum and his dad. He grows up, goes to school, has friends, and is one day challenged at school.
Run this race – if you win, you get a box lunch (rice and peas with chicken).
He ran. He won. He got his lunch. But it was others who took note of his speed and he was soon running for medals and not food. It was as if the competitive spirit in him was set alight and you see that in his running performances.
Throughout the documentary, Bolt talks about how his desire to run came from a desire to win more than anything. His best friend NJ mentions that losing was almost the antithesis of Bolt’s doings. He ran not to lose, and by default, ran to win. This is a sentiment that translates when you see him on the track, after having set off from the line and risen to full form at the 50 – 60m mark – his head automatically turns to see the position of his competitors in regards to himself. It’s something commentators heckle about during championships whenever he runs.
“Bolt surveys the track.”
It’s almost as if by design, he is engineered to see where his fellow athletes are in order to propel him to win. Just like he was running to win for that box lunch years ago, he was running to beat his competitors and win that gold medal. Again and again without fail, he had to keep winning. He mentions that his greatest feeling came when he won his first world championship as a junior in front of his home crowd of Jamaica. He was so deeply moved by the moment, he saluted the crowd in a almost military stance – a show of solidarity towards his people.
But it wasn’t always like this he said. Looking back at that winning performance, he recognises that his form was not on point: his neck jeered back and he was not going as fast as he could. His battle with scoliosis meant pressure was being put on his hips and it was affecting his performance. He needed expert training and a new (expensive) coach and against the wishes of his father, managed to obtain such. His father thought his son just wasn’t working hard enough, come to realise that Bolt was not working smart enough.
So with a new team behind him – Bolt began to work through the injuries that would plague his career. Paining back, swollen ankles, nicks and ticks and sprains threatened to blight his performance on many occasions but the people around him supported him in every realm. His best friend and manager NJ was there as comic relief but also a motivating force: parents were a reminder of the place he came from and where he was going to: coach was a symbol of the stardom he could achieve if he focused himself unequivocally. The streaks of winning came through hard grafting in combination with natural ability. Arguably, Bolt was born to dominate this sport, but his ability to refine what came natural to him, produced an extraordinary result. That was the difference you saw at the starting line. There was no way of knowing how hard his competitors had trained. But it was important to understand that the equal footing we supposedly see was not always true to form. Generations, years, eras of time had passed for each of those at the starting line to bring them to this moment and only one could win. That was the electrifying part of the whole performance. The idea that all of that work boiled down to this very intense moment and we as spectators got to see it.
There truly is something majestic about the way Usain runs. To the point where, whenever footage of his sprint was shown I found myself beaming at my laptop screen. It was a visual representation of someone powering through the odds in this finite space and time and I could view it. Someone pushing and pushing to beat everyone around him and succeeding at it with grace and humility. It made me think of other world-class individuals who rose to the top of their craft despite obstacles in their life. Messi being short. Maya Angelou being mute. Serena Williams being black. Elements that were integral to the beings of these people that could usurp their ability to succeed in their field did not hurdle their ascension to world-class status, but rather cemented it.
It makes me want to be like Bolt when I see him run. You root for him to win regardless. Whether it’s because you know his story or you are from his country or even if you just want to see his victory dance at the end. Either way, you want him to win in a way that is exceptional to every other sportsperson. Here is the part where many journalists state Bolt ‘transcends race’ but to that, I fundamentally disagree. Usain is who he is not despite his race but because of it. It is because of where he grew up that he runs as fast as he does, not despite it. Jamaica cannot be cancelled in the equation to success that Bolt has achieved and neither can blackness.
Needless to say, Usain Bolt is a star: winning 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay at three Olympic championships has never been done before and won’t be replicated in my life I am sure. But what I found most endearing was the truthfulness he exhibited when speaking about the lack of motivation he felt in the quest to go to the Rio Olympics this year. It made me think of myself in some respect. My lack of faith to do anything but laze got to me and how frustrating it was for people all around me insisting I am bound for great things but me not seeing it, or just not caring to appreciate it. Usain mentions he felt at a loss on numerous occasions and juggled with quitting the sport altogether to pursue the idyllic life of vacationing and enjoyment that he probably saw his age-mates pursuing. Again I’ve felt the same. Wanting to party it up and let loose but knowing you won’t be able to bounce back and continue your craft in the way you’d like to meant sacrifice. Happiness on occasion had to be put on a backburner to pursue the goal of excellence Bolt wanted to achieve. And although he had the fortune of having moments to just get away and enjoy life, it became clear that his want to celebrate life was incongruent to the lifetime goal of being the best sportsperson to ever live was achieved.
With that, he tried to re-align his focus back to track. But the focus didn’t become distinct until he heard Gatlin talking smack on TMZ Sports about winning at the Rio Olympics. At this point, it wasn’t known in the media that Bolt hadn’t trained in months and was considering abandoning the sport as a whole. But after seeing Gatlin’s interview, he mentions that the desire to win returned. It was like a flame that reignited his competitive spirit and his motivation to train was kick-started. Again, not wanting to lose came into play. He wanted to win for the sake of making sure Gatlin lost – a perfectly reasonable sentiment considering he’d reached the pinnacle of his own success and was competing with himself at this point. Racing against yourself was never as fun as racing against a competitor, so Gatlin’s self-proclamation was all the tick Usain needed to get himself back into gear. He was going to be the best no matter what. He was going to win.
And so at the Rio Olympics, Bolt did what he does best: he crossed the line first and solidified his status as one of the best sportspeople to have ever lived. And in that journey from the starting line to the finish line, I was reminded of what his coach had said in an earlier segment of the documentary.
It was not always about the destination. It was about the journey.
On the surface, this was about a man running at an incredible speed from one line to another. But underneath, subterraneously, this was about a young boy who put in the effort required to achieve his dreams.
As Ziggy Marley highlighted – what Bolt lacked in economics, he made up for in spirit. So though he was poor in the monetary sense, he was rich in talent, life and substance: a richness I believe we as people should all strive, run and fly for.