HTLS 2021 — I got to be a dad for some time: Usain Bolt recalls lockdown

HTLS 2021 — I got to be a dad for some time: Usain Bolt recalls lockdown
© Provided by Hindustan Times Usain Bolt is widely considered the greatest track and field athlete to have set foot on this planet, and completed a hat-trick of the 100m-200m sprint double victories at the Olympic Games. (Sports Illustrated via Getty Ima)

New Delhi: How did Usain Bolt, a man always on the move, handle being stuck in one place when the pandemic first began last year?

“Just like everybody else, I was home,” Bolt said, speaking at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, where he was in conversation with senior sports journalist Ayaz Memon. “But I was kinda happy, because I got a lot of time with my daughter. She came three months into the pandemic and I got to be a dad for some time. But I could see how rough it was for a lot of people and I realized it will last a lot of time, so I put my head down and tried to figure out ways to go through the tough times.”

And so the fastest man on the planet, the man with eight Olympic gold medals and eleven world titles and the 100m and 200m men’s world records — marks that are so astonishing that it may be decades before anyone challenges them — did what a lot of people have done to cope. He binged on TV shows, played video games and dominoes (“If I could play dominoes every day, I will do it,” he said) and he made music. One thing he tried to keep away from though, is social media.

On being asked about the way more and more athletes have spoken out about mental health issues, Bolt said his one advice would be to “stay away from social media.”

“I understand it, I’ve seen what they’ve been through,” Bolt said. “I went through tough times when I was younger but it wasn’t as hard because social media had not developed like it is now. Social media plays such a big role in putting that pressure — even now, I don’t look at comments — I was lucky when I was young that it wasn’t there like it is now.”

The man who once made track the most dramatic sport you could watch is now a father of three — his long-time girlfriend Kasi Bennett gave birth to twin sons in June, a year after their first child, Olympia — and doesn’t follow athletics all that much.

“I see a few races, and I try to see who is running fast,” Bolt said. “But when the pandemic goes I want to go to the stadiums and just watch which is not something I’ve had the opportunity to do before.”

That’s because most of his life, if he was in the stadium, he was running, not watching, even though he did not grow up with ambitions to be a sprinter. He wanted to play cricket, or football.

“I was a massive fan of cricket because my dad was a massive fan and he watched it every day and I loved football because the ‘Reggae Boy’s were doing well,” Bolt said. “I was proper good at both batting and bowling, I was an all-rounder but bowling was my strength. But one day I was running in to bowl fast and my cricket coach said, you should just run…”

Soon, Bolt was racing to the finish line ahead of everyone else at the junior world championships, in front of his home crowd in Jamaica.

“I was so nervous I put the wrong shoe on the wrong foot…and I still won,” Bolt said.

But the early success also brought with it early pressure.

“Because I started (winning) when I was so young, everybody was looking at me getting into the senior level and doing big things,” Bolt said. “But it took me a long time to figure it out. People were saying ‘oh he was good as a junior but he won’t make it at the senior level’. But I focused on me, I said I won’t listen to the world but I’ll work on myself.”

And then there was no stopping Bolt, nothing to stop him from burning tracks to cinder with his speed, from winning 100m and 200m sprints, usually decided by fractions of a millimeter, by barely believable margins which left yawning gaps between him and the rest of the field. Widely considered the greatest track and field athlete to have set foot on this planet, the Jamaican completed a hat-trick of the 100m-200m sprint double victories at the Olympic Games, a feat for the ages. He set the world records in these events multiple times, finally settling for the two numbers that define him, and the world of track: the 100m in 9.58s, the 200m in 19.19.

But even being the greatest athlete in the world did not insulate him from racism. When asked about the anti-racism and Black Lives Matter movements that has brought together many sportspeople from around the world in solidarity, Bolt said that he too faced racist behaviour.

“Definitely yes, but it was not massive for me and I’ve tried to ignore the smaller ones,” he said. “I think it’s very important to speak out. Sports is the biggest thing around the world, and it has a massive impact. I definitely think we should speak out because we can have such a big impact. We should all speak out.”

Bolt tried, briefly to make a career out of football after hanging up his sprinting spikes in 2017. Would he consider cricket again? The IPL auctions are coming up.

“Definitely,” he joked. “I’ll get my training on, get fit and get ready!”

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