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TOKYO — Usain Bolt was the consummate entertainer. He loved the crowd, and the feeling was mutual.
He'd have fans breathless one minute with his big body's ability to eat up the track. In the next, he'd have them roaring with delight at his post-race antics, whether it was dropping to the track to do push-ups, a celebratory somersault, or striking his legendary "To Di World" pose — now known simply as "Bolting."
He entered stadiums with high fives all around. There were fist-bumps, kind words, and sometimes even a souvenir hat for the young volunteers lucky enough to be working his lane. His friendly overtures left them stunned and grinning.
This sterile, COVID-19 era of sports would not have been a good fit for the Jamaican superstar.
No fans? No thanks.
"I don't know how I would do it," Bolt told The Canadian Press, trying to envision running in an empty stadium. "I live for the fans, that energy and that vibe, that's something I enjoyed doing.
"I think it would be really tough for me personally to compete in an empty stadium, I'm happy I don't have to do it, (but) I wish the athletes all the best."
Rising COVID-19 cases in Japan forced Tokyo Olympic organizers to hold events with no fans, including the track and field competition at what will surely feel like a cavernous 68,000-seat Olympic Stadium.
Bolt, who raced to eight gold medals over the previous three Olympics, retired from the sport after the 2017 world championships. He said the reaction from an adoring crowd nearly brought him to tears.
The 34-year-old said he believes some athletes will fare well with no fans in Tokyo, "because there's no distraction. But I know a few of them would love to have a massive crowd."
Bolt owned global sprinting for more than a decade, winning the 100 and 200 at the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics. He led Jamaica's 4x100 relay to victories in 2012 and '16, and has 11 world titles to his name.
It will be odd, he said, watching from a distance as someone else claims the sprint titles.
"I'm going to miss it a little bit, but I'm excited to watch, it's been many years since I've been wanting to watch," Bolt said in a Zoom interview, his backdrop an enormous trophy case.
Bolt is looking forward to seeing Jamaican women's star Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. He's avoiding picking favourites on the men's side, but had kind words for Canada's three-time Olympic medallist Andre De Grasse, who famously pushed Bolt in the 200 semifinal at the Rio Olympics — the photo of the two grinning sprinters is one of the most memorable of those Games.
"It's all about confidence. You can tell (De Grasse) is a very confident person, and he wants to be great. And he will do great," Bolt said. "I know he's coming back from some problems, some injuries.
"I think he will definitely do good over the 200 metres at the Olympics. He's one of the veterans now at the Olympics, he's been there, so I know he's capable of doing great things. So, I'm just going to watch and enjoy it."
Since retiring from track, Bolt has been keeping busy. He and his partner Kasi Bennett recently had twin boys, Saint Leo and Thunder. They also have a daughter, Olympia Lightning, who was born in May 2020.
Bolt laughed when asked what's more tiring, being the dad of twins, or running three events at an Olympics.
"Being a dad," he said. "Especially when everybody's crying, and you don't know what's going on. In fact, it's pandemonium. It's just a crazy vibe, but I'm enjoying it. So that's what counts."
He's also a business entrepreneur and a music producer and did a three-month professional soccer stint in 2018 in Australia.
Bolt returned to the track recently for a race. Sort of. In a promotional gig with a car retailer he tried — but failed — to run 800 metres faster than a customer could get an online quote for a vehicle. Bolt ran an unofficial two minutes, 40 seconds, a pedestrian pace, unsurprisingly, compared to world-class standards.
"It was fun, but it was tough, hats off to 800-metre runners, it's no joke," Bolt said with a chuckle.
For the promo gig, the six-foot-five runner laced up the same pair of Puma spikes that he wore at the 2016 Olympics.
He made headlines recently when he reflected on the sport's new "super spikes." The high-tech shoes, which will likely be a storyline of the Tokyo Olympics, have been at least partially credited for the fall of numerous endurance records. The highly responsive technology in the carbon plates and thick soles improves running economy.
The shoes have been polarizing in the sport. Bolt told The Guardian they give runners who wear them an unfair advantage over those who don't. He also believes he would have run much faster in them.
"Below 9.5 seconds for sure. Without a doubt," he told The Guardian.
His world record is 9.58. He's the only man who's gone under 9.6.
Virtually every world record between the 5,000 metres and marathon has been broken since the shoe's introduction (in 2016 in road racing and 2019 on the track), and so it seems inevitable Bolt's marks in the 100 and 200 metres will fall as well.
"It would be crazy to know that the reason why world records are broken was because of a shoe," he said. "But this is why I've always told people that I don't strive for records, world records.
"My aim was always winning medals. Because world records will go, but you can't take away the fact that I'm the only person that has won (both the 100 and 200) at back-to-back-to-back Olympics. So that's why I always worked so hard to win my gold medals."
His records appear safe for now. Trayvon Bromell has the fastest 100 time this season of 9.77. His American teammate Noah Lyles tops the 200 times with 19.74, nowhere near Bolt's world record of 19.19. De Grasse has the sixth fastest time of 19.89.
Bolt said it will be "tricky and difficult" to mimic the fan environment at Tokyo for the sprints, which are unique auditory experience: dead silence while athletes are crouched in the blocks, an ear-splitting roar when the gun goes off. But he has some advice for the sprinters.
"The athletes just have to remember that's why they're there, to compete at the highest level. This is still the Olympics, empty stadium or not, you just have to go out there and do your best," he said.
Bolt is also looking forward to watching swimming and basketball. While he's not on the U.S. basketball team in Tokyo, Bolt said his favourite player is Kevin Durant.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 20, 2021.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press