Ever the entertainer, Usain Bolt plays conductor to Olympic orchestra

Athletics - Men's 100m Final

Did you ever doubt it? He didn’t. Before the race began Usain Bolt said that the only question in his head was whether he should take it easy in the 100m final so he could spare himself for the longer sprints next week. He has his heart set, you see, on trying to break the 19 second barrier in the 200m.

The big worry, Bolt explained, wasn’t that this plan might make him vulnerable to his fellow competitors, but rather that it may upset his public. “Should I run the 100m just to win and save my energy for the 200m?” he explained. “If I shut it down in the 100, will people be happy? I don’t know.” He shouldn’t have worried. They love him what ever he does. And no one much minded that his time of 9.81sec was his slowest in an Olympic final, and short of his own superhuman standards.

As Bolt said, “it wasn’t a perfect race, but the fact is that I won, and that’s what we’re all here for.” The sad thing was the Olympic Stadium wasn’t actually full. There were some conspicuous blue blotches of empty seats in the ends behind the bends, even after Bolt himself had urged his Twitter followers to buy up tickets. But it was as close to capacity as it is going to get. By six o’clock, when the hills surrounding Engenho de Dentro, were backlit brilliant red by the sunset, the queue already wound round two sides of the stadium. More fans were pouring off every train and bus out from downtown. Once they were in, they roared their appreciation for each little thing he did, giving ovations to every wink and wag of his finger.

Before the final Bolt even spent a little time playing them, pointing to different stands to make them cheer for him in turn, like a conductor with an orchestra. The bass note was provided by the boos for Justin Gatlin, who was again cast as the pantomime villain and heckled each time he came out onto the track. Gatlin was banned in 2001 for taking amphetamines which he said were for his attention deficit disorder and then again in 2006 after a vengeful masseur – so the story goes – rubbed testosterone cream into his buttocks without telling him about it. These days he seems almost like a professional stooge. It’s a job that leaves him two things to do, get booed and lose. He accomplished both.

Bolt said that he had Gatlin’s measure by the time he was 50m into the race. Truth was, you could see it coming sooner than that, after Bolt coasted through the semi-finals in 9.86sec, his fastest time of the year before the final. In the semis, Bolt found the going so easy that as soon as he’d flicked his head to the right and left to check he had nothing to fret about, he broke into a grin and slowed right down again. Gatlin tried a similar trick, but he didn’t look nearly so easy doing it, and, in 9.94sec, was a lot slower too. In the final, Gatlin flew from the blocks and into the lead. But Bolt reeled him back in easily enough, and had time and space enough to beat his chest as he crossed the line.

Bolt believes he would have run quicker if he’d been given more time to recover from the semi-final. They only had an hour between races. Two is typical. “It did affect me a little bit, my legs felt dead at the start but I knew I would be OK when I started running,” he said. “An hour and 20 minutes, that’s the time I need, especially me because I’m a little bit older.” Whether it was age, or weariness, or all part of that grand plan to break his own world record in the 200m next week, it was the first time Bolt’s run in a major final felt anything less than breathtakingly brilliant. He ran 9.79sec to beat Gatlin at the World Championships in Beijing last year. But the race was closer than this one, and, because of his own injuries and Gatlin’s fine form, the circumstances more trying. Maybe it’s just that he’s spoiled us by winning in such style in 2008 and 2012.

A world record did fall, but it wasn’t Bolt who broke it. In a truly strange piece of scheduling, the organisers had jammed the men’s 400m final right up against the men’s 100m final. Which meant that he and his fellow competitors walked out in front of a crowd still reeling from seeing Wayde van Niekerk, a 24-year-old from South Africa, knock 15 hundredths of a second off Michael Johnson’s world record. When Bolt made his name at those Beijing Games he did it, in part, by beating another of Johnson’s marks from Atlanta, in the 200m. Eight years later, it felt like Van Niekerk’s timing was just right, that he was taking centre stage just as Bolt was getting ready to step off it. Perhaps the organisers knew what they were doing after all.

Bolt knows Van Niekerk well, and broke off from one of his interviews to hug him as he passed. The two of them trained together in Jamaica earlier in the summer, after Bolt’s coach Glen Mills invited Van Niekerk into his camp. He said Mills had seen Van Niekerk’s performance coming. Few other people did, because even though the South African won the World Championships in 43.48sec last year, he ran this race from lane eight. “I told him my coach had said that he was the only guy right now, other than me, who could break the 400m record,” Bolt said, “because he has got speed and he has got strength.” Intriguingly, Bolt said that he would “love to race” Van Niekerk over 300m, and that maybe they could make it happen next year.

Bolt had been around the back on the warm-up track when Van Niekerk was running. “When I saw he got the world record,” Bolt said, “I was like ‘wow’.” For once he knew how it’s felt for the rest of us.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Andy Bull at the Olympic Stadium in Rio, for theguardian.com on Monday 15th August 2016 07.05 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010