Usain Bolt has been the fastest man in the world for so many years that it’s hard to really remember a time before him. He turned sprinting from a deathly serious pursuit for triangular people into a personality parade. He made athletics fun. We’ll soon be in a time after Bolt, with his retirement expected after the 2017 Athletics World Championships. He’ll retire, a few days shy of 31, as the fastest man in history and the only sprinter to win gold in the 100m and 200m in three consecutive Olympics. So what’s it like to be that good? That’s the question this documentary looks to answer.
It starts as pure hagiography, trumpeting Bolt’s achievements and trying to drum up some kind of tension over whether he’ll be victorious at the Rio Olympics – no apologies for the spoiler in this case – but where it gets really interesting is when we come to the moments we never usually see. We’re used to Bolt grinning for the cameras and palling around with the crowds. Directors Benjamin and Gabe Turner, who made the excellent 2007 football documentary In The Hands Of The Gods, home in on the nervy moments Bolt hides, when he wonders if he’s past his best or struggles with motivation. What do you aim for when you’re already the best in history? It shouldn’t be surprising to see someone so close to superhuman being so nakedly, breakably human, but it is.
In some ways, Bolt’s a tough documentary subject. He’s always on an upward trajectory. There aren’t really any lows to come back from, aside from that disqualifying false start at the 2011 World Championships.
It’s hard to shape an interesting narrative. On the other hand, he’s the perfect subject, enough personality for his entire sport packed into one wiry frame. Even scenes of him alone, bored, in hotel rooms are entertaining, thanks to his eagerness to entertain. Is that true of any other sportsperson in the world? As Serena Williams, who knows more than a little about being the best of the best, says, even when you feel you should be rooting for your own country, you want him to win. Just as he is on the track, on film he’s gold.