Usain Bolt bows out
In the bowels of the Olympic stadium in Rio de Janeiro last year, Usain Bolt was dressed in a yellow and green jersey, the colours of his native Jamaica, and discussing his future. He had just won gold in the men’s 100 metres, his third Olympic title over the distance, to confirm his status as the greatest sprinter in history.
Asked how much longer he could continue racing, he replied: “Hopefully, the dream won’t stop,” with a typically toothy smile. “They never catch me.”
Though Bolt has since accepted the dream must end, his rivals could still fail to catch him. Aged 30, he has announced his last race will be at this year’s world athletics championships, which began in London’s Olympic stadium on Friday.
If all goes to plan on Saturday night, Bolt will beat a line-up of the fastest men on earth to win his fourth 100m world title.
He will adopt his signature victory pose, called “To Di World”, fingers pointed upwards as though sending a lightning bolt into the ether. In front of adoring fans, he will take a lap or two of honour. He could appear again next week, to anchor Jamaica in the 4 x 100m relay. But then, with running spikes in hand, Bolt will retire from the sport.
An untouchable champion on the track, Bolt is an irresistible force off it. Last year, he announced his arrival in Rio at a press conference in which he was serenaded by a rapping Norwegian journalist, then performed the samba with a bevy of Brazilian dancers. He ended the games with three gold medals.
“I can’t honestly remember somebody in my lifetime of watching sport . . . that has grabbed the imagination in the way this guy has,” says Sebastian Coe, president of the International Association of Athletics Federations and a winner of two Olympic gold medals.
Ricky Simms, Bolt’s agent, says: “He has the ability to shine on the biggest stage and by being himself at all times, he has brought so much positivity to track and field.”
Even if he fails to achieve a winning finale, Bolt’s departure leaves a vacuum. For years, athletics has been bogged down in scandal. The IAAF is yet to lift its ban on competitors from Russia, imposed before the Rio Games, after revelations of state-sponsored doping.
Due to suspicions around past performances, the governing body for European athletics has proposed to wipe out track and field records set before 2005 – a plan that has met howls of protest from past champions. Of the 30 fastest 100m times ever run, Bolt has run nine of them – including the three quickest. The other 21 were achieved by sprinters who have tested positive for doping at some stage in their career.
Bolt, who has never failed a drugs test, has lent legitimacy to athletics during difficult times. Speaking to the BBC this week, he said the sport “hit rock bottom” with the Russian revelations, while demanding that athletes who dope must “stop or the sport will die”.
“In the world of preprogrammed and artificially packaged sports personalities, who have to look sideways to spin-doctors to answer even the most mundane questions, this guy has a view,” says Lord Coe. “It’s his personality, not the trophy cabinet, that has got him to where he is.”
Bolt was born in Sherwood Content, in the parish of Trelawny, Jamaica. His parents, Wellesley and Jennifer, still live in Trelawny (population: 75,000), which has a reputation for raising great sprinters. World-beaters such as Veronica Campbell-Brown, Merlene Ottey and Yohan Blake were also brought up in the area.
Various theories try to explain Bolt’s success. One is that he has the “fast twitch” muscle fibres required for elite sprinting, which are common among Jamaican athletes of African descent.
Bolt himself credits the island’s unique sporting environment. As a teenager, he was a household name in the country, thanks to record-breaking performances in Jamaica’s annual schools’ athletics competition called “Champs”. The event is played out to packed stadiums and is televised live. Times set by Jamaican juniors often beat those of national champions in most other countries.
“It’s just that we have a good system,” Bolt told me last year in Rio. “Boys and girls, Champs keep producing more and more athletes. For years to come, we will have the great athletes to win.”
He is also a unique physical specimen. At 6ft 5in, Bolt is taller than the average sprinter. Like rivals, he is capable of an explosive start and then generates force efficiently into the ground to gather speed. Unlike shorter competitors, he needs just 41 strides to complete 100m, while most opponents need 45 to 48.
Watching a 100m race is an optical illusion. Athletes leap out of the blocks together, the victor appearing to gain velocity throughout in order to break away from a chasing pack. In reality, Bolt accelerates through the first 60m to reach top speed at more than 12m per second. From that high, he has shown an ability to maintain top speed for longer, decelerating less than opponents, to cross the finish line first.
Among those tipped to replace Bolt is Canada’s Andre De Grasse, a 22-year-old seen as a future Olympic champion. “Everyone knows he’s slowing down a little bit,” said De Grasse of Bolt earlier this year. “He’s getting older, but he’s still the man to beat.”
Racing one last time, the question is whether Bolt will slow down enough in his final steps to relinquish the crown?