Perhaps sport alone has the power to bring an entire nation, even the world, to a standstill. Music can have the same mesmerizing effect on a connoisseur, but the universe of such people is much smaller.
Almost all of India, one understands, suspended whatever they were doing to watch M.C. Mary Kom’s semi-final bout against Nicola Adams. When Usain Bolt ran his two sprint races, the entire world, across continents, countries, races and time zones, was glued to TV. Stupefied.
TV viewership analysts in England put the audience for his 100m run at 20 million, which exceeded by far the highest for any other event in this Olympics. The closest was home favourite Mo Farah winning the 10,000m gold, watched by 17.1 million.
Second gold: Jamaica’s Usain Bolt celebrates after winning the 200m. Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP
An equal, if not greater number, are reckoned to have seen Bolt beat Yohan Blake and six other pretenders to the 200m title on Thursday . These are figures for only one country.
“When Bolt runs, lightning strikes the world, maan,” said an ecstatic Jamaican fan returning home after watching the race. Even allowing for some jingoism and dollops of hyperbole, this doesn’t ring untrue.
The sum total of the time Bolt took in winning the gold medals in the 100m and 200m events was less than 30 seconds; but those 30 seconds have in many ways been the defining moments of these Games.
With due apologies to Michael Phelps and other celebrated champions, the fastest man on the planet becomes the biggest star. When he does this in two successive Olympics, as has Bolt, he becomes a phenomenon.
The pressures and pains of running the sprints is often obscured by the fact that the races finish so quickly. But there is little else in sport that is so demanding. Sprinters spend a lifetime of rigour and training, shedding blood, sweat and tears, to see their fate decided within 10 or 20 seconds.
A false start, a muscle twitch at the wrong time, one momentary lapse in technique or focus can spell ruin and perpetual disillusionment. Unlike the jumps or throws, there are no multiple chances to atone for a bad attempt. There is virtually zero scope for recovery in a race, almost no chance of a comeback.
The sprints require supreme physical fitness, but even more mental toughness, a deep focus, extraordinary levels of commitment and self-confidence. Which is why most sprinters are a brooding, grim lot, which is where Bolt is unique.
It’s not just his skills that find no parallels, but also his maverick showmanship that would put Oscar winners in the shade. He’s got swagger, chutzpah, he exudes arrogance, he’s playful, he’s respectful, he’s disdainful. He predicts doom for his opponents, victory for himself. And wins.
Some argue he is a freak. He may well be. At 6 feet 5 inches, he’s among the tallest sprinters in history. But what could have been a handicap has become his strength. His high knee action, which sees him fairly lope over the track, is poetry in motion.
The four ‘C’s considered imperative for a champion athlete are concentration, confidence, control and commitment. Bolt might seem to be in breach of all four, going by his manner and words, but that is for public consumption. Unless things go terribly adverse, Bolt has also resurrected the sprints from the taints and taunts of being the haunt of drug-laden athletes.
It is easy to get swayed—or lulled—by Bolt’s theatrics, but at his core is an athlete secure in his talent because it is based on the strongest fundamentals. Add to that his desire to win, and you get a Super Sprinter like never before. Is Bolt then the greatest Olympian ever?
There are quite a few in the pantheon of super athletes who will find strong support, too. American discuss thrower Al Oerter won the event in three successive Olympics, Great Britain’s Steve Redgrave had five successive golds in rowing, Jesse Owens beat the field in the 100m, 200m, long jump and relay in 1936, Carl Lewis has nine gold medals, Teofilo Stevenson won three boxing golds in a row, Nadia Comaneci is a multiple gold medallist, the first gymnast to score a perfect 10, and not forgetting Phelps, who has 22 medals including 18 gold.
Family dream fulfilled: Kenya’s David Lekuta Rudisha celebrates after winning the 800m final and breaking the world record in London. With his time of 1 minute 40.91 seconds, Rudisha achieved a longheld goal of going one better than the silver medal his father, Daniel, won at the 1968 Games. In other results involving Indian athletes, Narsingh Pancham Yadav lost to Matthew Judah Gentry of Canada 1-3 in the 74kg freestyle and Amit Kumar was beaten by Vladimer Khinchegashvili of Georgia in the 55 kg freestyle quarter-finals, both in wrestling. Photo: Eric Feferberg/AFP.
But Bolt would be a front-runner for the top spot certainly. Given his speed on the track, who knows he might pip everybody to the finish line here, too.
Ayaz Memon writes a fortnightly column in Mint, Beyond Boundaries.