Farewell then Usain St Leo Bolt, also known as Lightning, also known (but only to his mum) as “VJ” and now also known for as long as anyone cares to keep measuring these things as the greatest track and field athlete ever.
Eight years on from that introductory Beijing Olympics, the most compelling figure of the modern Games capped another frictionless display of human ultimacy in Rio by leading Jamaica home in the 4x100 metres relay and earning not just another gold medal but a lovely collegiate moment of farewell.
Bolt ran the final leg in Rio, taking the baton level with Japan’s Aska Cambridge. From there it was just a case of rolling himself upright and oozing into that thrillingly powerful stride to take it by a suitable measure of fresh air. Watching him giggle and pose and goof about with Asafa Powell, Yohan Blake and Nickel Ashmeade at the end it seemed absurd anybody could have doubted the dreadfully monikered “ThreePeat”, aka the Triple Treble, would come to pass. Bolt will now retire from Olympic competition with an astonishing full house of nine successive gold sprint medals.
It makes sense in most sports to reject the title “greatest of all time”. Time has not yet run out. The boundaries are always being pushed back, new peaks crested. With Bolt the notion of full-blown GOAT-ism seems less of a stretch. This isn’t just a Threepeat, it’s an unThreepeatable Threepeat. For a man whose life is measured out in fractions of a second his longevity is equally astonishing. Carl Lewis is the only previous man to have won two Olympic 100m sprint gold medals. Nobody had ever done it in the 200m. For Bolt to win both three times in a row, to do so while smiling and clowning and running a race apart, is something beyond, barely species‑parity.
These aren’t the kind of medals you win by stealth, or in a talent lull. The sprints remain the extreme razor edge of all athletic competition, a strange, intoxicating quest for speed, relentlessly whittled away at by an industrial-scale machinery of expendable human material. The 100m in particular has tended to eat its young. It belongs now to this departing Olympic colossus, the man who forgot to tie his shoelaces before that gold medal run in Beijing, the prodigy chastised as lazy, the teenager whose high jinks included spending a night hiding inside a cupboard at the former prime minister’s house during a track team excursion.
Bolt’s greatness as a competitor will be measured out in medals and times. His influence is just as profound beyond the track. After his gold in Beijing the International Olympic Committee president, Jacques Rogge, had spoken disapprovingly of Bolt’s chest-slapping exuberance, his ditzy pre-race routines. “This is not the way we perceive being a champion,” Rogge noted.
Time to perceive a little differently, old boy. That same champion has for the past eight years carried Rogge’s sport on his back. Never mind the A-list reach, Bolt’s status as track and field’s sole member of the outright mega-brand sporting overclass. Here’s an interesting stat: take Bolt away and the top 26 fastest times run for the 100m all belong to athletes who have failed a drug test. For the Olympics Bolt has been both a lure and an act of intoxicating misdirection.
In Rio there were rows of empty seats once again inside the strangely incoherent concrete blob of an Olympic stadium, with its undulating white roof plonked on top as a leaky aforethought. Bolt drew the usual crackle of electricity around the stands, posing for the cameras, waving to the crowd, spreading around a little of that wonderfully easy sense of showmanship.
His grand racing style will also be missed. At times there is almost something of the old amateur spirit about all this, the illusion of effortless superiority, in itself a form of intimidation. Denis Compton, so the story goes, turned up for a Test against South Africa without his bat, wandered down to the Lord’s museum to borrow one and went out and scored a hundred. It is a story Bolt, who giggled at the end here about how little Jamaica had practised their baton changes (“Just once, maybe twice,” according to Asafa Powell), would enjoy.
His father Wellesley once attributed his speed to early consumption of the Trelawny yam, a crop locals say has medicinal qualities. Growing up, Bolt played football and cricket, and like Blake was spotted while haring around the outfield as a schoolboy, the sheer venom of his runup enough to suggest serious speed in reserve.
The big breakthrough was the 2002 world junior championships in Kingston where Bolt became the youngest 200m champion aged only 15, a race he still holds very dear. The slack years followed. “Everything was easy for me,” Bolt said after his 100m win in Rio. “I didn’t have to train hard to be the best. It was really easy. I wasn’t ready. I was just enjoying life. And then after a time I figured, if you want to be in this work, if you want to be the best, you have to train to be the best.”
Then came Beijing and outright ignition. A year after taking up the 100m in earnest Bolt became the first man to win three golds and set world records in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay. The odd injury aside, the odd minor dip, he hasn’t stopped since.
There is of course a shadow at the edge of this, a skein of suspicion among those bruised by relentless disappointments elsewhere. Bolt has never failed a drug test. Almost everyone else around him has. Even Bolt’s relay team here had two athletes, Blake and Powell, who have failed tests. Bolt himself remains an enthusiastic client of Hans “Healing Hans” Müller‑Wohlfahrt, the German doctor and physical guru who injects his own herbal remedies into his clients, including a calf’s blood serum that some find a little troubling.
The human brain struggles to process such anomalous brilliance. How, the sceptics ask, can it be possible to run faster than athletes running faster than nature allows, and not just by a head but by an exhilarating margin?
There is a competing counter‑narrative, the fact of simple physical exceptionalism. Bolt isn’t just unusually tall and unusually powerful in the hips and thighs, he’s unusually flexible too. No tall man has ever been able to run a bend like this, to start well enough, to get himself in position to apply the full extension of that overwhelmingly easy power in full flight. Bolt is the big man who runs like a small man, feet moving at the same fast-twitch speed, but covering one and a half times the distance in stride length. When he runs as he should, in a regular human-scale field, the basic mechanics say he’s unbeatable.
So why retire now? Bolt is about to turn thirty. He’s still in control of his sport. Look closer though and this is perhaps a simple case of an athlete with nothing left to prove, set now on following the money in whatever peak earning years he has left. Bolt is currently the 32nd best paid athlete in the world, with an annual income of $32.5m putting him just below Gareth Bale, just above Serena Williams
One figure stands out though. A relatively tiny $2.5m of that comes from what he does on the track, the rest from commercial work, To put this into context Bale earns seventy percent of his income from playing football, Bolt just seven per cent. The man who plays right-field for the Atlanta Braves earns $18m a year more than the architect of the Triple Treble. Wayne Rooney’s basic wage is eight times larger than the sporting income of the greatest ever Olympian
For Bolt those outside earnings will continue to roll in even when he quits the sport, his chief paymaster Puma accompanied by, among others, Nippon, Optus, Champion Shave, a range of bespoke insole called Enertor, and even a cameo in the computer game Temple Run. Why keep punishing the body after all these years? This is an athlete who has in the most basic sense outgrown his own sport.
A final world championships in London await next year. The Olympics will roll on regardless. New stars will emerge, albeit shadowed now by the memory of that gloriously uplifting figure in green and yellow, always moving away, always raising the limits of the possible.
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