Boltmania in Monaco: Usain Bolt talks final races, poker heights, and being stalked by Kevin Hart
In 2016, a respectable crowd of just over 3,000 gathered at the Louis II Stadium on the edge of Monaco to witness the IAAF Diamond League athletics meet.
But on Friday 21 July, at 2017's equivalent, the year-on-year turnout had more than sextupled. The sold-out, jam-packed stadium saw 20,000 people - some arriving in shared shuttle buses, others in the latest Lamborghinis and Ferarris - take their seats to watch a collection of the finest athletes in the world compete at a very high level.
So what happened over the past year to spark such an interest in athletics in Monaco? What made 20,000 spectators feel they simply had to be here for this event?
The answer was pretty simple when we saw the Jamaican flag peppered around the stadium and heard the passionate roars of the crowd:
"Usain Bolt! Usain Bolt!! USAIN BOLT!!!"
The fastest man on the planet was in the building. And it will be the last time he ever races here.
Pièce de résistance
The Fairmont Hotel in Monaco became the 'Olympic Village' of these athletic festivities, what with seemingly every sprinter, runner, hurdler, pole vaulter, javelin thrower, high jumper and triple jumper residing here temporarily. The lobby was non-stop hubbub all Friday long, as the sports men and women met their agents and assistants and made their way to the stadium.
And just like he has been at the past three Olympic Games and any athletics event he chooses to compete in, Usain Bolt is the headliner; the star attraction; the pièce de résistance.
We don't see him throughout the day in the build-up to the event, but understandably so. One quick showing of his face would probably cost him around an hour of potential relaxation and preparation time, as he would sign countless autographs and pose for countless pictures.
The man needs no introduction, but let me indulge you with one anyway. Bolt is an eight-time Olympic Gold medal winner, having won both the 100m and 200m at three consecutive Olympic Games (Beijing, London, Rio). He holds the world records for the 100m and 200m (9.58 seconds and 19.19 seconds, respectively). He's quite simply the fastest man in the world, and the fastest man ever known in recorded history. He's one of the most respected and accomplished athletes of all time.
In August, after running the 100m and 4x100m relay at the World Championships in London, he'll retire from his greatest of all time (GOAT) career. His accomplishments may never be matched.
Oh, and luckily for the PokerStars Blog, he recently announced he was partnering up with PokerStars to help promote poker around the world. That's why we're here in Monte Carlo; to see the man we've admired for so long do his thing, before he chooses to stop for good.
Bolt's in town to run the 100m sprint; the penultimate race of his storied career. And as we arrive at the stadium and are shown to our seats, it's clear that everyone can't wait to see him.
Live athletics is a little bewildering at first, as you realise everything is going on at once; javelins are being thrown on the right, men are vaulting poles to the left, women are triple jumping and high jumping, and all the while runners are having their introductions at the starting lines. In poker, we're used to different tournaments going on at once, and different games being played. But as a spectator, you couldn't watch them all at once!
After a minute or so of getting used to it, though, you start to pick up on which sport the French announcer is referring to over the PA system (our understanding of the language is minimal), and direct your gaze in that direction.
Two hours of gripping events later (for full details of each event, click here) it's time for Bolt and his seven competitors to begin their warm-ups. All Bolt has to do to get a roar from the crowd is half a dance move, a practice start, or take his top off to get changed (which gets the biggest roar of all). Bolt isn't just a fantastic athlete, he's a fantastic showman.
Then it's race time. Bolt, in lane four, towers over his opponents from the centre of the track. The TV cameras pan across each runner, and when it gets to the 30-year-old Jamaican it's affirmed once again who everyone is here to see.
I won't lie to you, the man looks cool as hell out there. Completely confident, ridiculously relaxed, entirely at ease. Have you ever seen him look fazed? That fun-loving guy you see in interviews and in his recent #GameOn videos (more on those later) is also the guy who's stood out there on the track. Although for now, it's business time.
They take their positions, and then they're off.
After a competitive start, it's not until the last 40 metres that Bolt begins to pull away. But as the commentator in the video states, "I still don't think he's running flat out. I think this is Usain Bolt winning; just winning. Each time he's getting a little bit quicker, and that's a season best for him."
Bolt's official time was 9.95 seconds. Now, as he did an extended lap of honour, it was time to try and grab a few minutes with him.
Grabbing a few minutes with Usain Bolt after a race is a bit like a Fab Four fan in the heights of Beatlemania trying to grab a few minutes with Paul, John, George and Ringo as they stepped off a plane. Sure, you're close enough (in my case I even had an Access All Areas pass); and from what you've heard, he's a great guy who would happily chat with you. It's just that everyone else wants to grab a few minutes with him too.
There are countless autographs to be signed and countless selfies to be taken before Bolt even comes near the press, but all the while he has a smile on his face. Perhaps he's relishing this moment, realising he won't have many of these lap of honours left.
We wait, and wait some more. The huddle of people around him edges closer and closer. And then finally he's in front of us, ready to chat. I offer my congratulations.
"Thank you man, thank you," he says, with a crowd of fans behind him. "I felt good coming in, and y'know, it's a great feeling to win. I feel good about how it all turned out. I dipped under ten seconds, which for me is the key to show I'm moving forward. It's a good thing and that's what I want to do, move forward and continue my time into the championships."
Bolt's had so much success in London in the past, and he's stated how happy he is to be finishing his career in the city. But how does the best in the business prepare for his last ever race?
"Well, this is good, I'm moving in the right direction," he tells me. "I'm just going to reevaluate this race and see what I need to work on and what I need to change, and then just go out there and execute."
There's only one more opportunity for Bolt to execute perfectly in a solo race. I remind him that he's just run the penultimate race of his GOAT career, and he breaks into that famous big smile. Has it sunk in for him that it's all nearly over?
"No, no. I think for me it's sinking in, but it's not fully there. I think after the Championships, after that final 100 metres, I think it will sink in then, y'know? That this is it, y'know what I mean? But I'm trying not to be too emotional!" " he laughs. "So we'll see what happens."
Speaking of emotions, Bolt is a master of composure. That's a talent that will surely serve him well when he comes to play Kevin Hart heads-up in poker at the PokerStars Championship Bahamas in January 2018.
"Yeah! I'm gonna keep that straight face!" He chuckles. "Y'know, I never show if I'm nervous or not. That's the key thing."
Of all the talents the man has, I ask him what he thinks would be the most transferable into poker.
"Oh God," he says, racking his brains. But then he comes up with the perfect answer.
"I think it's just how cool I am!"
He's kinda joking (but we both know it's true). "Keepin' that straight face! I'm always smilin' so you don't know when I'm nervous. Also, I'm taller than everybody..."
At this point another voice chimes in. "Kevin can't see over the table!" yells a person from the crowd, who may or may not be a friend of Hart's and a PokerStars employee.
"Yeah!" Bolt laughs. "Exactly. I can see everybody's hands!"
Bolt wasn't the only 6"5 person in Monaco this week. A Kevin Hart cardboard cut out was pictured following him around Monte Carlo since his arrival (more on which you can read here).
Not that it fazed Bolt in the slightest.
"All week he's been stalkin' me!" he laughs, referring to the Hart cut-out. "I see him peeking behind the walls, he's trying to see what I'm doing, but I'm just trying to stay focused, y'know what I mean? But I see him.
"It's been fun going back and forth [with the #GameOn social media videos] and seeing the reactions, it's been really exciting I must say."
When asked if he thinks he's winning the social media battle, his answer is surprisingly modest. "It's pretty close!"
And with that, our time with the GOAT was up. We headed back to the hotel, and Usain Bolt disappeared somewhere amongst a large crowd to do whatever Usain Bolt likes to do.
Of course, he stopped to sign more autographs and take more photos before he left for good. Just another normal night when the fastest man on the planet is in the building.
Jack Stanton is a freelance contributor to the PokerStars Blog.
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