Jamaican sprinter Yohan Blake talks about his tough childhood and equation with Usain Bolt, backs better pay for women athletes, admits pressures of representing a country, talks about his respect for Indian cricketers, and recounts the time he spent under a ban
SHIVANI NAIK: What’s your fondest memory of the 2011 World Athletics Championships?
Crossing that line. For me, winning is not everything, but for the world, winning is everything. It’s when the world remembers you. They don’t remember when you come second, third, fourth… Just like, if India loses, the media says, ‘They need to change this bowler, they need to change that batsman’. But when they win, nothing needs to change. When I ran the 200-metre in 19.26 seconds, it was the fastest race of my life. I felt like a plane taking off from the runway… like I couldn’t have been stopped, like a man possessed. I remember that race each and every day.
SHIVANI NAIK: You are a sprinter, always wanting to finish races fast. What is the slowest thing you have done in life?
I walk! I walk very, very slowly. Even my girlfriend says every day, why don’t you walk up. I walk like 0.1 (kph). You never wake a sleeping giant. I always say that. I walk very slow. And, I drive slow.
SHAHID JUDGE: The Olympics are held once in four years, and the race ends in 10 seconds. What’s that emotion like?
Nine seconds. A race ends in nine seconds. When you wait for four years, you don’t know if you are going to make it to the trials, if there is going to be an injury, if you are going to win a medal that day… Just imagine if all of those things happen. That’s so devastating. When you have that final line, when you hear ‘on your mark’, literally you hear you heartbeat out there. It gets as nerve-wracking as that. You see people do different things (mimics athletes exhaling) to get rid of the nervousness. We call it the dopamine of running, trying to calm yourself. You have nine seconds, and in that time you have to keep all your thoughts away.
SRIRAM VEERA: You grew up in a one-room house with broken windows. Your father was a bartender and tailor. Could you talk about those days?
When I watched Slumdog Millionaire, that really took me to my past. Growing up was a bit difficult… Everyone would sleep on the same bed, but I liked that. It made me work myself out of that (poverty). I didn’t get things on a platter. I have had to work for all of it. It taught me a lot… Even if I fall on my face anytime, I know how to get up.
SRIRAM VEERA: Your mother made you wear red shoes and you would take them off before you reached school?
I was so ashamed. My mum had given me church shoes to go to school. Every time I would walk, you could hear me from a mile (mimics the sound of the shoe). I was ashamed. That really pretty girl you liked is there and you going clop-clop! Everyone there, rich and pretty… And yeah, I was ashamed of the shoes then. But looking back, I enjoyed it.
SRIRAM VEERA: Later, you developed this ‘beast’ persona, even wearing fangs from your mouth, and roaring like a beast. Was there a point where you thought it was getting too much?
In 2014, yeah, the ‘beast’ was taking me far from me. It was transforming me into a beast really; it was all for a bit of fun really and I was enjoying it. Usain (Bolt) gave me that name after seeing how hard I trained. In 2008, when he broke those records, I would train with him and pushed him in training. I was the only one that the coach would tell to sit down, and not run for two weeks, because I was too fit… The beast was just for fun and the fans.
SRIRAM VEERA: Later, you met a pastor and stopped the ‘beast’ thing. What exactly happened?
He told me, ‘Listen Yohan, I think the beast is getting too much’. The hair was long, nails were long, I was putting false teeth, and he said god won’t be pleased with all that. From there, I just changed my image. I don’t know whether I should have done that. I don’t think I thought it through. It was just for the fans and I think it (the fun persona) might come back for the (Tokyo) Olympics.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: Where do you stand on the debate over genetics and athletes? Is it part of your genes or can you become the fastest man by sheer training?
I believe people are born different from each other. Some kids do maths really well, some spell brilliantly at age three. But what is happening now in the sport… with athletes such as Caster Semenya and the Indian athlete (Dutee Chand), the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) is coming down on them very hard. They (the athletes) don’t have control over their birth and what has happened to them. (IAAF chief) Sebastian Coe is killing track and field. He is taking away the excitement and their living, they don’t have anything else. It’s part of birth, the genetics. Usain is tall, 6-ft something, why don’t you cut off his limbs if his genetics is helping him be that fast? Why do you want someone (such as Caster and Dutee) to take that stuff (hormonal injections)? I don’t like it, I don’t support it.
SRINATH RAO: How is it training with sprinters in Jamaica, your equation with them on and off the field?
We do talk a lot of crap to each other, and also push each other a lot during training. Being the big guy, being the fast guy, you have to be on top of the game. There is always one guy who thinks he can match you, it’s really fun! It’s a clean, healthy environment.
SRIRAM VEERA: If you and Usain Bolt weren’t friends, would you have competed with him in more races?
That could have happened. That was because of our coach. If you see our careers, we didn’t run (together) that much. Only in trials or championships. The coach didn’t like us running (together) much and I didn’t like that. It’s a sensitive topic for me. I think we could have run more. Most of the time, when I was in form, the coach didn’t make us run together.
SHAHID JUDGE: Did Usain Bolt’s achievements leave upcoming Jamaican sprinters in his shadow?
It’s like Sachin Tendulkar with V V S Laxman or Rahul Dravid in their prime. Now Virat Kohli. Most of the other players don’t get that attention. If Cheteshwar Pujara makes a hundred, and Kohli makes a 200, he (Kohli) gets the attention. You have to be running extremely well… I have to run better to overshadow him (Bolt) and that’s not easy.
SHIVANI NAIK: Many Indians are vegetarians. Does that matter in your sport?
You need energy, you need over 5,000 calories a day for training. You need to eat, sleep, train and repeat. You have to work day and night. You are not going to win a race eating vegetables. No (laughs).
MAYURA JANWALKAR: What’s your diet like?
While training, it’s 99% about nutrition. I have to maintain 9% body fat. In sprinting, you have to be light. But not vegetables (laughs). Being heavy will make you slow, you need food that will make you fast. You need salmon, green vegetables mixed with protein, whole-grain pasta, rice once a week. You have fish. Sometimes I have a sandwich. You put on weight most at nights because that’s when respiration takes place. You consume breakfast and lunch and have a very light dinner. This has been my diet from the time I started running. You can’t have a normal life. My girlfriend eats ice cream often. I can’t. I have to just watch. I did have ice cream two Sundays ago but I had backed off from serious training then. I do have cheat days sometimes when I have ice cream and banana bread.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: How important are shoes to running? Recently, Kenyan long-distance runner Eliud Kipchoge ran a marathon under two hours with special shoes, triggering a debate.
I don’t think it had anything to do with the shoes. That guy is at another level, his lungs are big… It has nothing to do with shoes or the track. Of course, the spikes help in pushing your foot from the surface on the track. But he is talented and at a different level.
SHUBHANGI KHAPRE: Which sport is more challenging: cricket or track and field?
I got that on radio earlier: Brian Lara’s 400 or Usain’s 9.58? I would say that we train every day. A cricketer doesn’t train half of what we do. We train, vomit, and go back to training. Track and field is so hard. I can bat for 400 minutes, rest, and come back again. In athletics, I have one shot. The body can’t go that fast every day. What I do is very hard. I would choose cricket anyday for my son.
SHAHID JUDGE: In the absence of Bolt, you are the favourite. How does that feel?
I am sitting here in this building and carrying that burden on my shoulder. That’s the pressure of an entire nation on my shoulder. But I tell myself, I am not running for that nation, I am doing this for me. Tomorrow, if I fail, they are going to say he isn’t good and if I win, they will say, he is the best thing. So I put it into perspective, it’s going to be all about me and I want to get the job done for me. Whatever happens on that day, I will have no control.
SRIRAM VEERA: How do you see the state-sponsored doping scandal in Russia which was exposed after the Sochi Winter Olympics and the proposed Olympic ban of the whole country at Tokyo?
For me, personally, I don’t think they should have banned the country, they should have banned the athletes. You can’t let the good people suffer for the bad. It is their career, what are they supposed to do? I think, those who are clean should be allowed to run.
SHAHID JUDGE: How challenging was 2009, when you went through the three-month doping ban?
I think it’s funny. When you just finish high school and you are training with the club, they give you a supplement and you trust your coach. I was like, everything is going according to plan. It was a plant-based supplement that was not on the list. I believe some people were just fighting against us. I was banned and it was devastating for me and my friends. I didn’t go out for that whole period. I was like a caveman. I got over it, and they later apologised to me for ruining my reputation.
DIPTI NAGPAUL: Sports personalities and their nationalities get intertwined at the Olympics. Do you think athletes should be freed from this pressure of representing their nation?
I think you should be free because it is a lot of pressure from the country. Everybody sees you when you are doing well, you are winning. But you commit a mistake and everyone is on you. Sometimes you don’t even want to leave the house, as you are afraid what a person might say to you. It damages you emotionally and makes you not want to represent your country anymore… It tears you down.
SHIVANI NAIK: You have spoken about your love for the Indian Premier League. But can you talk about your love for Test cricket?
I think, over the years, watching V V S Laxman, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag, batting… it really intrigued me. The patience that these guys have. I really look up to them. Back in the day, that was ultimate cricket which really tests your character. As for West Indies cricket, in everything that you are doing, you are not going to reign forever. There will be a point when you will decline and then get back up again.
SHERRI MARKER: What made you champion the cause of road safety?
I was hit by a bus one time I was crossing the road. From that day everything changed. I was 13 years old. I want to tell people, don’t just drive for yourself, drive for others. Be mindful of people on the road, use the rear-view mirror.
When I was coming from the (Mumbai) airport, it was crazy… I have never seen anything like this anywhere. I saw five babies on a motorcycle with their mother. This is crazy. If I was the government, I would put a stop to it. If we could just put more ads out there and tell people to watch for the signs, and if the government can put up more signs on the road, and be more strict with these people, I think there can be a stop to it — but not fully. But we can control some of the death toll. In Jamaica, accidents are increasing… Even in the Christmas season a lot of people get in their cars and crash.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: What do you think of women sprinters coming unfairly lower down in the hierarchy
Even though for us men it is a blue-riband event, I think that they push the females even more. For women, even on the day (of the race) if they have their period, they have to run… I don’t know how it feels but it’s very hard to run with such pain. I don’t think they get highlighted as much as men and they are starting to feel the pressure. And they are speaking about it… Even to get more money for what they are doing. I think it is wrong that men get more credit for races than women.
SADAF MODAK: Where do you stand on the segregation of athletes on the basis of their gender, considering what happened with Caster Semenya — she has been allowed to run in restricted events but will need to bring her testosterone levels within prescribed limits to be eligible to run the 800-metres race?
I stand with women like Semenya. You are born a particular way and no one should change you. And I don’t think that anyone should force you to do what you don’t want to. I will stand with women in their fight for better pay and everything that they are not getting. It is very strenuous for them and I feel their pressure because they go through a lot. Training is not easy.
MAYURA JANWALKAR: We live in politically tumultuous times. Do you think sportspersons can distance themselves from politics or do they need to stand up for issues they feel strongly about?
I believe if you reach a stage in your career and you are wise to speak up and help, I think you should use the platform. Look, Virat Kohli is very powerful in India. If something is wrong, if he speaks up, the big guys listen. If you are that type of person and you reach that stage, you can speak up, and it will help, you should use the platform and speak.