Q&A: Bolt & MJ

June 11, 2009
A Brief Chat With Usain Bolt and Michael Johnson
Reported by Peter Gambaccini

Photo of Usain Bolt and Michael Johnson courtesy of Laureus

Usain Bolt of Jamaica, the one true breakout star of the track and field program of the Beijing Olympics, was named the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year yesterday in Toronto, where he’ll run a 100-meter dash at the Festival of Excellence this evening (Thursday). The 6’5" Bolt, of course, won the 100 (9.69) and 200 (19.30), and was part of Jamaica’s 4x100 relay (37.10), all gold medal and world record efforts. He had previously won the IAAF’s Track & Field Athlete of the Year Award. He was the World Junior Champion in the 200 back in 2002. Michael Johnson had joined fellow Laureus World Sports Academy member Edwin Moses in presenting Bolt with his award in Toronto. Johnson held the 200 world record of 19.32 before Bolt bettered it; he still has the 400-meter world record of 43.18. Johnson won the 200 and 400 at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the 400 again in Sydney in 2000. He was part of the U.S. 4x400 relay gold medal squad in Barcelona in 1992; he was also an eight-time World Champion. Johnson is now a commentator and columnist and an agent for athletes including 2004 Olympic 400-meter gold medalist Jeremy Wariner.


You’re entering 2009 races as the Olympic champion. How much has that changed things for you?
Usain Bolt: It’s been very busy. My life’s been very busy, but I still try and stay the same, and laid back. I really just try to be me. I’m just taking it a stride at a time.

Throughout everything you did last year, you never really got Tyson Gay’s best game because he was hurt. He ran 19.58 (for 200) a couple of weeks ago, which gives an indication he could be in good form. What does that mean to you? Do you look forward to maybe getting a little more from him? And do you think that while he’s never run 9.6 or 19.30, he should be able to challenge you?
UB: I said last season that it’s going to be a very interesting season this year because there are going to be other guys gunning for me. I definitely know that Tyson Gay did get one good run in when I broke the record first (when he ran 9.72 for 100 meters in New York in 2008), but I’m definitely looking forward to this season because he knows what he needs to do to beat me or really give me fierce competition. So I’m looking forward to it. He showed that he’s ready this season.

In a general sense, do you just want to see people alongside you to keep this going, rather than be 15 meters clear all the time?
UB: Yeah, I think it will help the sport, definitely… People love to see showdowns, so with these guys coming up and just competing against me and everybody just going for a showdown, it will be good for the sport.

What’s the biggest thing that’s changed in your life since the Olympics? Can you give an example of something that’s really different for you?
UB: Pretty much I can’t go in the street that much. I don’t get things done that easily anymore. I have a lot of attention when I get out on the street, so I pretty much stay off the street and stay home. If I don’t have to go on the street, I pretty much depend on my friends to do anything that needs to be done.

Talk about your training in the off-season. Was there anything you changed?
UB: My off-season was really up and down. I had so many things to do. People wanted me here and there. But I’m getting back. I’m working on what I need to work on. Right now I’ve been doing my starts, leading up to this. I’ve done speed endurance in the past month.

What do you think about when you’re asked about the 400 meters and if that’s something you might pursue in the future?
UB: In the long run, I may go up to the 400 meters, but right now I’m not really worried about it because it’s not really my favorite event or anything I would really want to do. I may move up in the future, but when I go up, it will be a lot of hard work.

Do you worry that if you’re not able to run 9.69 and 19.30 again - both of them are incredible times - people are going to say that somehow that’s not good enough.
UB: Personally, for me, if I go the World Championships, which is the aim for me, and I run 10.05 to win, I’m okay. If people want to judge that, fine with me, but I’ll be the champion then. So as long as I win, I don’t really matter (care) what time I run.

The 150-meter race you ran in Manchester, England, bringing it right to the middle of the city of people who might not normally go to a track meet, seemed to many folks to be a great idea. But there were others who didn’t think the future of track belonged in that sort of a venue. What are your thoughts about the future of those types of events?
UB: For me, I think that helps the sport. A lot of people don’t really go to the track or watch track and field that much anymore. But I think it’s going to help to rebuild the sport and I’m really looking forward to doing a couple more.

As far as your more traditional track races are concerned, besides the obvious financial considerations (his appearance fee in Toronto has been reported as $250,000), can you talk about what drew you to Toronto as opposed to some other places you could have gone?
UB: My coach decides what I need to run and what time. My coach decides he wants me to do a 100 now to see where I’m at or maybe I should do a 200. It just depends on what he sees or what he wants, because he’s the trainer and he determines what I do.

What’s your next race after Toronto?
UB: Ostrava (in the Czech Republic on June 17). 100 Meters.


You’ve referred to Bolt’s 100 final in Beijing as the greatest athletic performance you’ve ever seen. Besides the obvious world-record time, what did you find so exceptional about it?
Michael Johnson: If you look back at athletes like Carl Lewis and Linford Christie who were Olympic gold medalists at one point in the 100 meters and were world-beaters, they were never great out of the blocks and they were not as tall as Usain Bolt. But the first most impressive thing is that he’s able to actually generate turnover that allows him to stay with the other athletes who are much shorter and much more compact and powerful for the first 10 or 15 meters and then he’s also able to stay with them through the drive phase up to 30 meters, when he has an obvious disadvantage, having the longer limbs. The fact that he’s able to stay with them to that point is impressive enough, but from that point, once he gets up into his running and into his maximum velocity from 30 meters to 60 meters, that’s when he’s really able to separate from the other athletes, which is something we’ve never seen before and you won’t see in any other athlete.

In general, can tall athletes like him handle the curve of the 200 well?
MJ: I think there’s a trade off. The taller athlete with the taller center of gravity will have a much more difficult time mastering running the curve, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, it just takes work. And he (Bolt) has obviously been able to get himself pretty proficient with the curve. I think there’s an improvement to be made there, and whether he can do that or not, we will see. But the trade off, the advantage for someone of his height, is that he’s able to move more efficiently compared to the other athletes because he’s taking less steps and he’s able to cover much more ground with each step. And he’s also able to generate much more power with each step because of his height.

We saw a great time run by Tyson Gay just a couple of weeks ago (a 19.58 for 200 meters in New York), but given the difference in the physics of these two athletes, can anyone out there compete with Bolt? And you’ve analyzed him (Bolt) physically; what do you think of his mental and emotional makeup coming off this big season?
MJ: I certainly think that Tyson Gay can compete with Bolt. I think that he’s proven that. Tyson is a very good curve runner. He’s able to run the bend probably better than anyone else out there, including Usain. You look at the top 10 all-time list of 200-meter times, and he’s got three of the top ten, having run 19.5 and having run 19.6 twice. So he’s got more top 10 times than I do or Usain Bolt does. So I think that he can certainly run with Usain. I think that’s going to be one of the more interesting match-ups this year at the World Championships in Berlin, if Tyson can stay healthy. Whether or not Usain Bolt can duplicate the type of time he ran at the Olympic last year when he was at an ultimate high and there was an incredible stimulus for him, having his first opportunity to win gold medals and compete at an Olympics - it will be different for him this year, having come off of that. And Tyson Gay is running very well at this point. So that will be a great match-up.

As to the question of his mental state and how he’ll compete this year, it will be interesting to see how he handles his new status as a global superstar. And he’ll go into this season being the target everyone is aiming for. He no longer will be just a new young athlete. He’s now the biggest star in the sport… It’ll be a different situation, and that will call for a different approach. It will be interesting to see how he handles that.