I am Bolt! The world's fastest man gets the best sports documentary ever made

Sports stars always want to be remembered as the greatest in their game. This week, though, Usain Bolt prepares not just to run for gold in the final race of his career: he also stars in what might just be the greatest sporting documentary of all time.
01 August 2017
by:   The Guardian

As soon as it leaves the blocks, I Am Bolt, made by British filmmakers Benjamin and Gabe Turner, looks to have it locked down. Until now, it’s been a toss up between Asif Kapadia’s Senna (2010), a recreation of the weekend Ayrton Senna was killed in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, and When We Were Kings (1996) by Leon Gast, an account of Muhammad Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle fight with George Foreman in 1974.

But where Kapadia and Gast were working retrospectively, the Turner brothers are right in the moment. They filmed Bolt for the two years before the 2016 Rio Olympics, supplementing this with footage of key moments from the athlete’s life, including the gangly 15-year-old effortlessly winning an under-20s race in Jamaica.

Top athletes tend to give only contractually obliged interviews nowadays, while ensuring cameras catch the logos of the gear they endorse. But this film offers a constant and exhilarating sense of privileged access. We see Bolt in training, sprinting with a heavy weight tied round his waist; grimacingly lowering himself into post-race ice-baths in the hotel, and mucking around with team mates in Olympic Village bedrooms. We follow him on a secret visit to Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, a Frankfurt orthopedic expert, when an ankle injury threatens his ability to race in Rio.

Most tellingly, we watch the athlete alone on the bus on the way to the Olympic stadium, silent and composed, the world blocked off by earphones. Though Bolt is unusual in interacting with fans and grandstanding on the track even before the biggest events, a coach describes the “quiet quality” that descends on the extrovert before he goes out.

These moments are interspersed with a vlog recorded by Bolt. Bored and unable to sleep in his hotel room the night before a race, he reflects on the isolation of a runner’s life while circling the room on a Swegway with flashing lights, singing R Kelly’s Bump n’ Grind, his showman’s instincts intact even amid insomnia.

The film’s biggest issue is that, as Bolt is celebrated for his extraordinary win ratio, most viewers will know or guess the outcome of the races, however fresh they are made to look. But the makers inject tension through a sub-plot involving a serious psychological crisis in Bolt’s preparations for Rio.

“It’s hard to be as hungry as someone who has never won a championship,” admits Bolt, who often appears tired and ready to retire. Then he sees a TV clip of American rival (and former drug cheat) Justin Gatlin boasting of his plans to take Bolt down in Brazil, and although admitting to “not having got back all” of his motivation, he has found enough to go for another gold. In the film’s most revealing remark, Bolt says: “I’m too competitive – I take it personally if I lose to someone.”

Apart from its title star, the stand-out figure in I Am Bolt is his jocular coach Glen Mills, who recognises the need to tailor training to the runner’s personality: knowing that Bolt hates training, Mills intersperses drills with prankish downtime. Tellingly, in his pre-Rio crisis, the runner confides to his vlog that “it’s not fun any more.”

The prurient may argue that Bolt’s private life is almost ignored, except for a jolly chat with his mum and dad. And the dark-cloud subject of drug use in athletics is addressed only through side-swipes at Gatlin. Another regrettable absence is any exploration of the faith that leads Bolt to make a sign of the cross and point heavenwards on the starting line. Overall, though, this is a riveting and revelatory film that will explain to future generations the greatness of Usain Bolt in the way that Senna and When We Were Kings also do. A fittingly stellar film for the fastest man the world has ever known.

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