Usain Bolt introduced himself to Rio by dancing on a stage with women in flamboyant samba costumes. It was the perfect entrance for the world’s most entertaining athlete.
Bolt will depart Rio after racing on a stage, the oval one he turns into a theater each time he steps onto it in his golden spikes. It was the perfect exit for track and field’s GOAT.
Greatest Of All Time. That was Muhammad Ali’s title, and the once and forever champ retains the title.
But Bolt is the greatest in his sport, master of the sprints, world record holder, nine-time gold medalist, undefeated Olympian, winner of the unprecedented triple-triple in the 100 meters, 200 and 400 relay. At the 2012 London Games his goal was to become “a living legend.” In 2016 he became, in his words, “immortal.”
Bolt declares his superiority with a wink, as did Ali. Like Ali, he’s got a comedian’s timing, a performance artist’s inventiveness. He wants you to feel his joy for the elemental essence of sports — running and racing.
Bolt was smiling again Friday when he crossed his final Olympic finish line as anchor of the 400-meter relay. He and his Jamaican teammates broke into a victory dance. They blew kisses to spectators. They posed by the clock that read 37.27 seconds. They accepted congratulations from the Americans, who left dejectedly after having their bronze medal negated by an error on the first handoff, when Justin Gatlin accepted the baton from Michael Rodgers too early, prior to entering the exchange zone. It was the sixth time in the last seven Olympics or world championships that the U.S. men have either been disqualified or dropped the baton.
Even a precision race would not have dethroned the Jamaicans. With Jamaica, Japan, Canada and the U.S. fairly even as they rounded the curve, Bolt took the baton from Nickel Ashmeade and took off. With a running start, no one had a prayer.
When other sprinters hit the natural deceleration point, the 6-5 Bolt’s eight-foot stride allows him to decelerate less rapidly, creating the impression that he’s bursting past his opponents. His max speed of about 27 mph carries him farther. What he loses unfolding his long legs out of the blocks and aerodynamically with his height, he makes up for with 2-3 fewer strides per 100. He makes you wonder what the 6-8 LeBron James might have done as sprinter.
The gap grew and grew and Bolt won comfortably, as he did in the 100 and 200. Three golds in a six-day span.
“As soon as I got the stick I knew I’d win,” he said. “No one on the anchor leg can outrun me. I told the guys, ‘Don’t leave me with too much work to do,’ and they didn’t.”
Asafa Powell said they didn’t practice the relay much.
“Usain did one session, we all did two,” he said, chuckling. “So we did a few.”
They’ve got Bolt bringing it home.
Compare him to Carl Lewis or Paavo Nurmi, who also won nine Olympic golds in a greater variety of events. Lewis won four consecutive golds in the long jump. Nurmi won the 1,500 meters on up to the 10,000.
Not only has Bolt been more charismatic, but more dominant. He owns world records in the 100 (9.58) and 200 (19.19) and Jamaica set the relay world record of 36.84 in the 2012 Olympics. His coach has tried to get him to run the 400 but he says it’s too hard.
The Rio Games will go down in history as a showcase for three otherworldly athletes who reinvented their sports: Bolt, Michael Phelps in swimming and Simone Biles in gymnastics.
Their bodies were built to generate power on the track, in the water and in the air. But they would have gone nowhere without an intense will to win.
Bolt seems nonchalant when he’s joking before races, mugging for the cameras, seducing the crowd. But he is “an incredible competitor,” Powell said. “People don’t realize how hard he works and how serious he is about winning.”
Usain St. Leo Bolt’s biography sounds like that of a legend. He grew up in the countryside near Trelawny, where his father runs a small corner market. As a barefoot boy, Bolt carried buckets of water up and down the green hills to his parents’ simple house. He played cricket and wanted to be a batsman. He ate the yams the region is famous for, and his coaches swear the potent tubers enhanced his fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Bolt has never forsaken the isle of speed that has produced elite sprinters in numbers disproportionate to its population size. The latest, 100 and 200 winner Elaine Thompson, hails from rural Banana Ground village and speaks with a thick lilt.
Bolt lives in the hills above Kingston. He owns a restaurant/sports bar called Tracks and Records, where you place an order (try the yams) and if it’s not brought to your table within 9 minutes, 58 seconds, it’s free.
He’s more loveable than Lewis. He’s a multi-millionaire but not a prima donna. You can sense his genuineness because he shakes hands with the little people. Before one of his London races he chatted amiably with the awestruck woman carrying his gear basket so she wouldn’t feel nervous. On Friday, he stopped repeatedly in the Mixed Zone so volunteers could snap photos with him.
“OK, one more,” he said. “I’ve been on my feet for like five hours.”
He patiently answers questions like these: “What you’ve accomplished — is it impossible?” Or, “How would you compare yourself to Bob Marley?”
Bolt is in danger of losing one of his golds, if a retroactive positive test of relay runner Nesta Carter’s samples from 2008 negates the result. That would be regrettable because Bolt has been the savior of his beautiful, troubled sport when doping and corruption scandals could have sunk it.
Like Phelps, Bolt, 30, insists this was his last Olympics. He knelt down and kissed the finish line goodbye. Next summer’s world championships will be his farewell meet. His first Olympics made him happy, he said; the second was a challenge, and the third gave him mixed emotions.
“It’s a relief. It’s been really stressful the years I’ve gone through with injury problems,” he said. “I’m going to miss the energy of the crowd, playing with them, which keeps me relaxed. I’ve done it all. I hope I’ve set the bar so no one can do it again.”
The mesmerizing sight of Bolt thundering down the stretch takes your breath away. We’re going to miss that sight, his finish line antics, his “To Di World” pose. Bolt isn’t the poet Ali was, but he is poetry in motion.
A living legend deserves an ode:
Fast as lightning, electrifying, too,
Powered by yams and callaloo.
Pride of Jamaica, watch him bolt;
Can’t catch Usain, undisputed GOAT.