Bolt’s secrets: what it takes to be best

Bolt from the blue: The sprinter has lived and trained in Jamaica all his career. © PA

The film ‘I am Bolt’ opening this weekend discloses the secrets of the world’s fastest man. Above all it shows how tough it is to be a world champion. Is being the best really worth it?

Usain Bolt is one of the most famous people in the world, thanks to 87.53 seconds’ worth of action. Taking his combined finishing times in the 100 metre and 200 metre finals at the last three Summer Olympics, it took the Jamaican just under a minute and a half to win six gold medals. It will take you longer to read this article.

But those races were the culmination of a lifetime of discipline and strict routines. Bolt eats six meals a day, all rigorously controlled by his trainers and assistants. His days start off with an exhausting workout — and that’s before he even starts sprinting in the Caribbean humidity.

Then there is the stress of being a world champion. The film portrays a man who, for all his outward calm, is haunted by doubts. ‘Every year, before my first race, I worry: ’Am I still fast?’’ he says.

Mastering anything requires work — 10,000 hours of practice, if the psychologist Anders Ericsson is to be believed. Those hours could be spent socialising, learning or travelling, rather than swimming lengths or playing chess.

In some fields there is a darker side to success. In 2011 Mariafrancesca Garritano, a former ballerina, described how dancers suffered from bulimia and anorexia as a result of the pressure to maintain the perfect body shape for their job. For most dancers, blisters and broken foot bones are the inevitable result of a life spent on tiptoes in tiny shoes.

Perhaps the most restrictive thing about elite sport is diet. Take jockeys, for example, who tend to weigh around eight stone. This means that they have to survive on 1,000 calories per day. The recently-retired Tony McCoy only ate dinner four nights per week. Over his career he broke almost every bone in his body.

And at the other end of the spectrum is the swimmer Michael Phelps. He eats 12,000 calories per day including a breakfast that reads: three fried-egg sandwiches with cheese, one five-egg omelette, one bowl of grain, three slices of French toast and three chocolate-chip pancakes. He spends around nine hours per day in the water.

Pushing too hard

‘This doesn’t sound worth it,’ say some. Attempting to become a world champion removes you from ordinary life. Imagine not being able to choose what you eat, and being away from your family for weeks at a time. A quiet family life is surely preferable to this painful, and in some ways pointless, quest for supremacy.

‘Life should be about endeavour and ambition,’ say others. To be the world champion at anything would be much more fulfilling than living a humdrum life. Bolt, Phelps and others teach us that hard work, focus and discipline can help you achieve your dreams. That is a lesson worth learning.

You Decide

  1. Would becoming a world champion be worth it?
  2. Does society place too much importance on sporting excellence?

Activities

  1. Try to become brilliant at something in the next year. Keep a diary of your progress.
  2. Research one world champion and give a presentation about how they reached the top.

Some People Say...

“It doesn’t matter who the best sprinter in the world is.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why does this matter to me?
This debate does not just apply to the fastest man on the planet. In your own life you will have to make choices about how hard you push yourself. Some people are single-minded in their quest to be brilliant at something. Others are content with the smaller things in life, such as family, community and a general sense of happiness. Which are you?
Is Bolt going to retire soon?
Bolt, now 30 years old, announced before the summer games in Rio that 2016 would be his last appearance at the Olympics. He plans to retire after the 2017 World Athletics Championships in London next year, but some believe he will go back on his plans to miss the Tokyo Olympics.

Word Watch

Jamaican
Jamaica has dominated the world of sprinting in the 21st century, having won 14 sprinting golds in the last three Olympic games.
10,000 hours of practice
One example of this is The Beatles, who performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time. The Beatles’ biographer Philip Norman said that ‘it was the making of them’.
Bulimia
An eating disorder characterised by binge eating followed by getting rid of the food as quickly as possible. This is done either by deliberately vomiting or by taking laxatives.
Anorexia
An emotional disorder and obsessive desire to lose weight by not eating.
Tony McCoy
Often known as AP McCoy, Tony McCoy is a former jockey from Northern Ireland who during his career rode a record number of winners: he won 4,358 races and was Champion Jockey (the jockey who wins the most races in a year) for 20 consecutive years.
Michael Phelps
The 31 year-old from Baltimore has won more Olympic gold medals than any other competitor, with 23.

Subjects

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