RIO DE JANEIRO — The Olympics are not just a collection of sports competitions. They are also an endless succession of press conferences. Some of these are stiff, somnambulant affairs in big, air-conditioned conference rooms. Some are them are joyful celebrations at stadiums and arenas, celebrating gold, silver and bronze medals. Some of them are nearly private, one athlete talking to a single journalist from his hometown or home city.
But when Usain Bolt holds a press conference, that is different from all of the others. That is an event. Monday evening on the stage at the concert hall in Cidade das Artes, a massive cultural complex in Barra di Tijuca, Bolt made his first and only public appearance before he begins competition in the quarterfinals of the 100 meters Saturday at the Olympic Stadium. A crowd of reporters approaching 1,000 was in place. This is the first of several for Bolt—he will play to similarly large media crowds after his races. He is by far the most popular athlete here, a celebrity beyond measure.
Bolt kept the crowd waiting for half an hour while 2000 Olympic triple jump gold medalist and world record-holder Jonathan Edwards interviewed other Jamaican athletes. Finally Bolt strode across the stage and then spoke. “First of all,” said Bolt, admonishing his audience. “You gotta clap louder than that. That was weak.”
Generally, it’s considered bad form for media members to applaud press conference subjects. But Bolt is an exception to every rule. Before the press conference was over, a man who identified himself as a reporter from Norway stood and explained that he had no question, but just wanted to tell Bolt how much he loved him. Then he launched into a freestyle rap to express his devotion to the Big Man. Bolt dissolved in laughter and then asked the Norwegian to rap again so that he could Snapchat it. (For the record, I neither clapped nor rapped, mercifully. I did laugh. Bolt always makes me laugh.)
There was a little bit of news:
Bolt reiterated that these are his last Olympics. “This is the last one, for sure,” he said. “I’ve proven myself over and over again.” Bolt told me in May that he plans to run the 100 meters only at the world championships next summer in London. His fellow icon, U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps, seems to be waffling a little on retirement. Bolt is far less likely to cave. He will leave happily.
Also, Bolt said the hamstring injury—in reality, a balky lower back that transfers issues to his left hamstring—that forced him to withdraw from the Jamaican Olympic Trials in late June is feeling better. “I was unhappy about competing in Trials, because I needed those races,’’ he said. “But I’m in much better shape. I’ve gotten some races.” That’s not entirely true. Bolt has run just one race since mid-June, a 200 meters two weeks ago at a Diamond League meet in London. Bolt won that race in 19.89 seconds (his world record is 19.19, but he hasn’t run under 19.50 since 2012), and felt that he ran pretty well, But he called his coach, Glen Mills, and got a different report. “He was like, ‘That was one of the worst races you’ve ever run,’” says Bolt, laughing, and inducing laughter. His comedic timing is excellent.
And Bolt also long ago proved that once healthy, he can get fit very quickly in training. He declined Monday to name any chief rivals for the 100 meters, although the obvious choice is American Justin Gatlin. “It’s all about who can hold their mental toughness to the line,” said Bolt, and that might have been a shot at Gatlin, who fell apart late in their matchup last summer at the world championships in Beijing. Gatlin was fitter and faster, but couldn’t take down Bolt. So perhaps Bolt was dropping a little needle.
Bolt also reiterated that he has one major goal left: to break 19 seconds in the 200 meters, which most track experts feel is impossible. Then again, the entire phenomenon of Bolt seems impossible.
When the event ended, Bolt posed for photos and then took a selfie with the media throng in the background. After that, samba music filled the area and Brazilian dancers wearing very little clothing surrounded Bolt. The world’s fastest man fell into line, moving to the beat and dancing very slowly off the stage.
Five days and counting until he runs. And talks again. Both will be events.