Note the date now2014: men’s 400m, Usain Bolt, 42.5.
No, not the ‘Lightening’ man’s own prediction – Bolt avoids talk of the 400 as much as possible – but as firm an answer to a journalist’s query as you’re ever likely to hear from an athletics coach.
Not just any coach, either, but Bert Cameron, the first World 400m champion from the World Championships in Helsinki back in 1983. Cameron is now Jamaica’snational 400m coach and a man who watches Bolt train virtually everyday.
How does he know the date? “He promised me,” says Cameron. “He will do it and he promised it’ll be six years from now.” And how fast will he go? “42.5,” says Cameron without the merest hesitation.
Five days ago, if anyone had made such a suggestion it would have been treated as a joke. But five days ago the world of men’s sprinting was on a different planet, one a whole lot closer to the normal orbit of track and field that most of us have come to understand.
In Beijing, Lightening Bolt has struck twice in five days to blow the men’s sprints into a whole different stratosphere. “It blew my mind and blew the world’s mind,” as Bolt himself said after becoming the first man since Carl Lewis in 1984 to win the Olympic sprint double and the first man ever to do so with two world records. Only in 1968, when Jim Hines won the 100 and Tommie Smith the 200, and 1996 when Donovan Bailey took the 100m and Michael Johnson, the 200, have both records gone at the same Olympics.
“I’ve written history pretty much,” as Bolt puts it with a characteristic shrug. Back home in Jamaica, he tells us, “everywhere is pretty much blocked off”. That’s what the Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding told him, anyway.
He doesn’t like running the 400
So what more is there to prove at the shorter sprints? A move up to the 400m might appear to be the logical next step for a man who, at 6 foot 5, seems tailor-made to be a one-lap runner. After 9.69 and 19.30, 42.5 seems sort of, well, possible?
“Don’t hold your breath,” says Bolt. He may have promised Cameron but there’s a reason why he specified six years before he’s going to be ready to take on the killer event – Bolt really doesn’t like the quarter mile.
“A lot of people keep suggesting I should be going up to 400,” he says. “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it anytime soon. I don’t want to say anything too much because my coach might hear and want me to run it. But anything is possible.”
Where Bolt’s concerned that’s certainly true. “You know at 16 he ran 45.35?” says Cameron, his eyes wide in memory.
“He doesn’t like running the 400, I know that, but when he gets tired of running 200s he’ll move up, for sure. He promised me. For now, he still wants to run faster in the sprints.”
So how will Cameron persuade him to take up the challenge? “It’ll be a question of his national pride,” says Cameron. “If he doesn’t see the 400 in Jamaica improving he will probably decide to move up himself. He will want to put us back on the map.
“We keep on doing badly in the 400 and sooner or later he’s going to realise that and he’s not going to like it. Then he’ll move up.”
Don’t say that he can’t do something… that’s when he will
He may only be 22, but it’s in the nature of the man, according to Cameron, that Bolt has such a sense of responsibility, despite his laid back approach to life. “He’s like that,” he says. “He likes a challenge.”
“I would advise people, don’t say that he can’t do something, because when you say that he can’t, that’s when he will. He’ll prove you wrong. That would be my advice to his opponents as well.
“I don’t know what’s in his mind now, I never ask him about that. But if he says he’s going to do something he will. I see him every day and watch his progress. Jamaica’s such a small place we are at the same track every single day.”
In some ways, Bolt’s been carrying the weight of his small Caribbean nation’s expectations for six years, since he was, at 15, the star of the World Junior Championships in Kingston where thousands queued to watch him run, many clambering over the walls to get into the stadium, hundreds locked outside. Even at that age he was already at “world beating standard”, as one Jamaican official put it.
“Everybody knew we had seen the future,” says the official. “But the country had patience.”
Bolt was allowed time to develop in his own way. Cameron would’ve liked him to be a 400m runner there and then, but he knew that Bolt had to be allowed to do the things he wanted. “He could do any event and I knew that he didn’t like to train for 400s,” says Cameron. “I believe the 100 is his best event. But he believes the 200 is, so who am I to say? He’s the one who’s running it.”
“The 200 means more to me than the 100,” confirms Bolt. “This World record means a lot to me. I’ve been dreaming of it since I was knee high. It’s been my love since I was 15, so it’s close to my heart.”
Just five hours before the men’s 200 final, Michael Johnson himself had commented that Bolt didn’t have the speed endurance to break his 12-year-old record. “He has incredible leg speed and a long stride,” said Johnson. “That combination is deadly.
“But the 200m has another element which is speed endurance. What we don’t know is how long he can hold that speed. I don’t think his training at the moment has enough endurance for that. But eventually it will have and then I will be ready to kiss my record goodbye.”
“Eventually” turned out a good deal sooner than Johnson expected. But perhaps what the former World record holder didn’t know is that Bolt already trains for the 400m as part of his preparations in the early part of the season.
“At first he trains like a quarter miler,” says Cameron when asked whether he was surprised by what he’d seen. “He trained like a 400m runner because he was training for the 200. Then in the pre-competition period he started sprinting to do the 100s. He’s well prepared.
“So it wasn’t surprising to me that he broke the record because if he can run 9.69 when he wasn’t even running his best event – you can imagine what’s he going to do running top notch in his favourite distance.”
Even Bolt was a bit surprised, however. “I had an idea I could go fast,” he says. “I’ve been runing fast all season and shutting down. But to do that after seven rounds is a bit surprising. But I told myself, ‘If you’re going to do it, do it here.’”
We may have to wait another six years to see him do it in the 400, but Bolt may not have finished redefining the shorter sprints yet.
“He still wants to run faster in the sprints,” says Cameron when asked how low he thinks Bolt can go. “It depends on how much he runs, how many races. The thing is, I don’t know with Bolt, Bolt is different.
“I mean, I used to run and I’ve seen many great athletes, but I’ve never seen anything like that.”
In 1996, many were saying the same about Johnson. In 2018, they could be saying it again. Remember the date.
Matthew Brown for the IAAF