Usain, being still.
Under review: 9.58: Being the World’s Fastest Man, by Usain Bolt with Shaun Custis (2010, HarperSport, 287 pages)
As the Sochi Winter Olympic Games lurch to a close, it’s instructional to remember that, for Summer Olympians, the past two weeks were exactly like every other two weeks in an uninterrupted four years of solitary, quasi-monastic training, in anticipation of the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. The nature of their work is as astonishing to the insider as it is to the most casual of viewers: years of existentially trying toil, all aimed at a window of competition usually under a minute long, in which the slightest of missteps will send the head-shaking athlete back to four more years of private practice mournfully directed at that next crucial minute of competition.
Mere participation in the Olympics is a real life accomplishment, unquestionably meriting the five-ring tattoos that some of its contestants proudly ink on their immaculately toned bodies. But even elite, gold-medal mastery doesn’t ensure traffic-halting fame, nor grandchild-endowing bank accounts. Their passion projects aside, the everyday lives of Azerbaijani wrestlers, Canadian curlers, and South Korean archers all look more or less indistinguishable from their neighbors’.
Not all Olympics events are created equal, of course: the winner of the men’s 100-meter sprint automatically headlines each Games, their less-than-ten-seconds of glory captured by tens of thousands of flashbulbs. Win 100-meter sprints at two Olympics in a row—setting a new world record along the way—while also winning two 200-meter sprints in a row—and setting a new world record there as well—and you can only be Usain Bolt, internationally recognizable sprinter of unparalleled success. 9.58, the title of Bolt’s memoir, references the time of his most recent shattering of his own world record, set at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin.
The book is something of a response to a meta-textual conversation the world has been having about Bolt since his domination of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In that 100-meter final, Bolt competed with one of his shoelaces untied, establishing such a large lead over the field in the first 80 meters that he spent the last 20 meters noticeably slowing, scanning the track from the side to side looking for challengers that would never come. We seven billion slower humans can’t help but regard Bolt with open befuddlement, incredulously flailing to scrap together clues as to how his success was achieved. How, exactly, does one set a sprinting world record while also thumping their chest in victory?
Bolt is so unlike his competitors it’s hard to compute: at a lanky 6’5”, Bolt is a wholly different shape than his sprinting peers. Bolt was born with scoliosis, leaving him with legs of slightly different lengths. He appears impervious to performance anxiety, even when four years of work depend on a ten-second performance; his goofy pre-race poses are the diametric opposite of the twitchy, anxious stone-faces that his American rivals Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin constantly sport. Neither is Bolt the Type-A, hyper-vigilant trainer that many Olympians are: since the local fare upset his stomach, Bolt ate nothing but McDonald’s chicken nuggets the entire time he was in Beijing. 9.58—not to mention most of Bolt’s answers in interview—is in response to the subtextual question: “How is this possible?”
Since it’s hard to distinguish which events and ideals of the Olympic origin story belong to recorded history and which belong to iambic-scribbled papyrus, it’s perhaps unsurprising that 9.58 gives its readers the tools and tales with which we can view Usain Bolt as Mythic Hero. The sport here is sprinting, its entrants entirely unburdened by the myriad of equipment belonging to, say, baseball or hockey. What has changed about the greats of this sport since their in-the-buff B.C. days—save the size of their audience?
As with any of the cloud-shrouded Greeks, Bolt’s origin story is totally essential to comprehending his ascension. Specifically, it is Bolt’s place of origin—slow, lush Sherwood Content, a pleasant village in Jamaica’s Northwest tropics that invites heavenly hammock naps—that is all but given credit for coaching Bolt to victory. Relaxed without being sleepy, vibrancy tinging the slanged syllables of their smooth patois, Sherwood Content was a place where a boy could truly be a boy, free to stomp around the river with friends, no after-school violin lessons or honors classes in sight.
Bolt’s parents once took their son to the doctor in fear that Usain’s hyperactivity was symptom of a greater disease. Nothing was wrong with Usain, they were told (and as we are told in 9.58); he just entered into the world this way, given by the cosmos ever more energy to burn and legs of unequal sizes. This is ultimately the same explanation as to why Bolt is so good at sprinting. Partial to playing cricket and soccer, Usain had to be persuaded by family and friends to pursue sprinting, the brilliance of his gift evidently not clear even to himself.
The story is powerful because—and, again, it’s not hyperbole to compare it to Greek lore—it’s strong and wide and deep enough for the people of Jamaica to build their identity as a nation, as a culture, on top of. Details like Bolt’s parents still living where they lived when Usain was born, or that Usain has never resided in any other country are anything but small: they are vital proof that world-beaters can be built out of Jamaican ingenuity, diet, spirit, equipment. The chest-thump and starting-line gesticulating is essential, too, functioning as essential proof that a relaxed spirit and a pursuit of fun times do not preclude elite performance.
Bolt has earned many millions of dollars, but his training sessions remain astonishingly bare-bones, facilitated by Glen Mills, his positively zen coach, and set in front of idyllic Kingston vistas.
This is the beauty of the craft that Bolt has chosen to pursue—or, perhaps more accurately, the craft that was chosen for him: all anybody needs to compete is an empty field and, if you can, shoes. The rest is decided by raw talent, the ability to integrate diligent technique, and, at these most elite levels, an ability to transcend the burning, iron wills of seven other men. It’s running, but it was never just running.
The lessons for aspiring memoirists here are, alas, sparse. Bolt’s feints to mythos are grandiose and self-serving. Which is hardly an accident: Bolt wrote (/dictated) this book in service of his brand, and his brand is his self. There’s plenty of vivacious human spirit in 9.58, but the audience is not presented a mortal that we can look at without necks craned up; all of Bolt’s personal misdeeds are painless boyish mischief that rile only his rule-oriented father, and all of his failures were productive, a gangly teenager learning the ropes against the Caribbean’s elite young men.
Then again, maybe it’s precisely Bolt’s relentless version of his successes that is the lesson here for those who would write a literary memoir. We’re meant to admire Bolt in this book, to see him as a human who has never truly lost. But just as few of us will ever know a person like that in real life, few of us will ever truly know the other authors who present themselves that way.