Asafa Powell says it is time to step out of Usain Bolt’s shadow
* Anna Kessel * guardian.co.uk, Saturday 20 August 2011 22.54 BST
Asafa Powell smiles a long, slow smile. The 28-year-old who made Jamaica synonymous with world-class sprinting when he broke the 100 metres world record in 2005 has been out of the spotlight for three long years. In that time he has watched as his rival and friend Usain Bolt achieved extraordinary things and became a global superstar.
Now, though, Powell is back at his best. He is ranked No1 in the world this year and his best time of 9.78sec is a whole tenth of a second faster than Bolt’s. For the first time in a long time Powell takes centre stage as the world championships loom.
“Yes, it’s been a while,” says the Jamaican, slowly unfolding his arms and speaking in his lovely languid manner he is known for, “but I’d say everyone should just take the camera off me and put it back on Usain. Just not focus too much on me; I need my time to breathe, to focus on myself and what I’m supposed to do. I’m happy to be out of it. I’ll just put myself back in when I’m ready.”
It is an interesting proposition for a sprinter to shun the limelight. But then Powell is a man who has always described himself as shy, who could never relate to the macho start-line antics of a swaggering Maurice Greene. “That tongue thing,” says Powell, screwing up his face. “I always thought: ‘Why’s he so cocky?’” He laughs. “It’s all a mind game, trying to get yourself in a different zone.”
Powell has his own mind game to play. It has nothing to do with clowning around on the start line and everything to do with knowing his biggest competitor inside out. As friend, confidant and adviser to the fastest man in history, Powell has watched Bolt grow as a person and an athlete. Of all the sprinters who will line up in the world championships in Daegu, South Korea, this month, Powell feels he is the only one truly to know Bolt’s achilles heel.
Leaning in confidentially, he lowers his voice and lets out an extraordinary secret. “I think in the entire world I’m the only person that has always scared him [Bolt],” says Powell, pausing to allow the strength of those words to sink in. “He’s always been telling me that over the years. I get the truth out of him when he drinks a bit. He gets a bit tipsy and he’s like [adopts a slurring voice]: ‘Asafa, you’re the only man in the world I think can beat me.’” He leans back in his chair and smiles.
“He first told me that in 2008,” Powell says. Before he broke the world record? “After. Just before the Olympics. He’d just run 9.72. He said: ‘You’re the only man in the world who I think can beat me.’”
It is quite a confession but Powell plays it cool. “I was like, in my head: ‘I know that,’” he says, giggling. “But you know I really have a lot of respect for him and he has a lot of respect for me as well. So for him to really come to me and tell me that I was the one who motivated him to start running the 100m and that he respects me a lot – he always tells me that – I have a lot of respect for him.”
The respect has always been mutual. In the early days it was Powell who advised Bolt, four years his junior and finding his way on the track, as he struggled with injury and critical public opinion. Meanwhile Powell set the world alight – the first Jamaican to break the 100m world record when he bettered Tim Montgomery’s 1992 mark in 2005 to 9.77, improving that to 9.74 in 2007. In those days it was always Powell’s face that was plastered across the billboards on the island.
“I was the man in Jamaica,” he nods. “Then Usain came along. But in Jamaica people are happy to say that I’m the one who really caused all this; if it wasn’t for me, there wouldn’t have been a Usain. So everyone still has me as the man in Jamaica.” Powell denies that sliding out of the limelight as Bolt captured the world record in 2008 caused him any upset. “It wasn’t hard for me. I’m quite a person who gives respect when it’s due.”
Even so it must have hurt him when the world continually looked to the American Tyson Gay – the last man to defeat the world record holder, in Stockholm last year – as the man to take on Bolt? He shakes his head. “I knew that people were saying it was all about Usain versus Tyson but I don’t really care about that. On paper they are the two fastest in the world. But in reality I think I’m the man to really go out and do it.”
Bolt, unbeaten this season although running substantially slower than his world record-breaking time in 2009, cannot be ruled out of mounting a serious defence of his world titles. The rest of the world’s fastest men, however, are dropping like flies. With Gay out of the running, due to injury, athletics took a major blow last week when it was revealed that the third- and fourth-fastest men this year – Jamaica’s Steve Mullings and Mike Rodgers of the US – had tested positive for banned substances. Neither will travel to Daegu, leaving a depleted field of only Powell, Michael Frater and Bolt from the world’s top six fastest this year. Bolt aside, though, only one man really stands in the way of Powell claiming his first major title; Powell himself.
For the minister’s son the start line at a major championship has always been a place racked with nerves and stress, the ultimate barrier to an athlete who held the world record for three years but has never won an individual world or Olympic title. Labelled a choker, he seemed for many years to believe it.
Two years ago his coach, Stephen Francis, decided something had to change. Francis had seen enough of Powell, a man he knew as relaxed and happy, turning into a nervous wreck in the blocks. “He said: ‘Lighten up,’” Powell recalls. “He said: ‘Everything just changes [when you go on the track], you look different, your eyes are red’ – because I was so nervous. I actually knew everything he was telling me but I didn’t know what to do to really avoid getting so nervous and really thinking about the outcome of everything so much.”
As he describes his thoughts at the start of a race, Powell paints a picture of a busy mind, vulnerable to distractions. What does he think about? Powell’s eyes glaze over in a daydream. “Engines,” he says. “I think about cars to try and distract myself. It’s a good way to relax, take your mind off everything. I think about what to do next, what part am I going to buy for this car, where to get it from.”
Overcoming the psychology is proving a difficult habit to kick. When Powell raced Bolt in Rome at the start of the season he was ahead until the finish line, where Bolt stole a minuscule 0.02 to claim the victory. Afterwards Powell looked distraught. But it was painfully evident why he had lost, his head – rather than his legs – failing him in those final strides. Powell nods. “That race was all my fault,” he says. “I got very excited – when I got halfway in the race I was like: ‘Where is Usain?’” He motions looking around. “I was the one who brought him back into my race.”
Squirming, Powell admits he could do more still to win. “Sometimes I’m at home and I remember I’m supposed to do 100 push-ups and I don’t. Sometimes my coach will call me and say: ‘Asafa, you done your exercises?’ and I’d say: ‘Yes, coach,’ and then after I start doing them. Sometimes I’m training and I just want to go home and work on an engine. Sometimes I’ll be working on an engine and just miss practice. Or go to the beach. I know, I’m like a kid. Maybe I was a bit too spoilt growing up. Everything just came like I wanted it to.”
In recent years nothing has come like he has wanted it to. Powell may smile and say that the girls love him more than Usain – no matter who runs faster – but he feels the pressure of the Jamaican public. “Everyone says: ‘When are you going to break the world record? When are you going to win?’”
Asked if he thinks he can beat Bolt in Daegu, Powell is suddenly vague. “I have no idea. I don’t know what kind of shape he’s in, I don’t know what he’s doing in training,” he says, waving away the question. But when the focus returns to him alone, on the subject of whether he feels ready finally to win a major gold medal, he is more forthcoming. “Yes,” he says, emphatically. “I’ve been starving myself for nine years. I’m ready to win.”
He sits back in his chair and looks serious. “I’ve waited too long,” he says, “too, too long. I am the most hungry person out there.”