RIO DE JANEIRO — Buried beneath the confidence and the charisma, sprinkled between the jokes at the start of the news conference and the almost-naked dancers at the end, were a few hints that Usain Bolt is not in top shape for the Rio Olympics.
The Jamaican Olympic team held what was billed as an introductory news conference Monday. It was more like a show. Instead of gathering at the Olympic Park media venue, which was good enough for Serena Williams, the USA men’s basketball team and the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jamaica rented out a gleaming museum. Drinks and snacks were in abundance, as were executives and logos from Puma, which sponsors Bolt and the national team, in that order. The production began with a short film about Jamaican sports history.
The spectacle was appropriate for Bolt, who considers himself both sprinter and entertainer. He’s the overwhelming favorite to win an unprecedented three sprint golds in a third consecutive Games — the “triple triple.” His world records in the 100 and 200 are unassailable. A loss in Rio would be a monumental upset.
But perhaps not inconceivable.
The world’s fastest man pulled out of the Jamaican Olympic trials July 1 with a slight hamstring injury, then qualified for Rio on July 22 by winning a 200 in London in 19.89 seconds. After that race, Bolt said his coach, Glen Mills, told him, “that’s one of the worst races you’ve ever run.”
“I was like what?” Bolt said at the news conference. “(Mills said) yeah, the corner was awful, he just went on until I got depressed. It was one of those things.”
Maybe that was just Mills motivating the notoriously lazy Bolt. In past years, Bolt has coasted into championships out of shape, but he has still found ways to win every time. The 2015 world championships in Beijing was Bolt’s closest call yet. In the 100, American sprinter Justin Gatlin was even with Bolt going into the final 20 meters, but Gatlin lost his composure and stumbled to the finish line. Bolt won by one hundredth of a second, 9.79 to Gatlin’s 9.80.
On Monday, Bolt said his race with Gatlin in Rio won’t be as close. “It hasn’t been a perfect season,” Bolt said. “But I’m in much better shape, got a lot more races in.”
Enough races to achieve his long-stated goal of lowering his 200-meter world record to under 19 seconds?
“I think it’s going to be a little bit hard,” Bolt said. “I missed out on trials, and on training the last few weeks of the season. But you never know.”
We will find out this Sunday, in the 100-meter finals, just what kind of shape the legend is in.