Rio de Janeiro: As the king of sprinting and the biggest global star at the Rio Games, Usain Bolt of Jamaica held aloft his index finger, signalling that he was No. 1, during introductions on Sunday night as a smitten crowd chanted his name.
Then Bolt proved it again, winning the 100m in 9.81 seconds, a coronation that secured his place as the greatest sprinter of all time. He is the only man or woman to win the Olympic 100m three times, which he accomplished at three consecutive games. His main rival, Justin Gatlin of the US, the 2004 Olympic champion who later served a suspension for doping and was booed Sunday, took the silver medal in 9.89 seconds. Andre De Grasse of Canada won the bronze in 9.91.
As the exuberant Bolt ran down Gatlin in the final 40 meters, he pounded his chest. He then blew kisses to the crowd, hugged some spectators and carried a toy Olympic mascot around the track before giving it away. Finally, Bolt struck his signature pose, known as To Di World, cocking an elbow and aiming his fingers toward the sky, as if launching an arrow or a lightning bolt. He is also favoured to win a third straight gold medal at 200m in Rio and yet another as the most vital member of Jamaica’s 4x100m relay team.
“Somebody said I can become immortal,” Bolt said. “Two more medals to go and I can sign off. Immortal.”
Gracious in defeat, Gatlin said of Bolt, “He rises to the occasion. He is a great runner.”
For Bolt, Sunday’s victory carried both a sense of festivity and farewell. He will turn 30 on Sunday as the Rio Games end. He has said repeatedly that these will be his final Olympics. He plans to retire next year after the world track and field championships in London, with one transcendent career goal remaining: to take his world record of 19.19 seconds at 200m below the 19-second barrier.
When Bolt crossed the line Sunday, it was not with the same astonishment as that night eight years ago at the Beijing Games, when he was new to the public and to the 100 and he finished in 9.69 seconds, easing up and celebrating before the finish but still smashing his own world record.
Nor did Sunday’s performance match the wonder of the 9.58 that Bolt ran a year later to set the current 100m record at the 2009 world track and field championships in Berlin.
As with his victory at the 2012 London Games in 9.63 seconds, winning for Bolt is now more about career achievement, historical standing and dominance in the biggest moments than about mere startling speed.
He stacks wins as if they were poker chips. Since he became an otherworldly figure with his performances in 2008, Bolt has won 69 of 74 races. His only truly important defeat came with his elimination on a false start in the 100 at the 2011 world track and field championships in Daegu, South Korea.
“It was brilliant,” Bolt said of Sunday’s race. “I didn’t go so fast but I’m so happy I won. I told you guys I was going to do it.”
Before the Olympics, Bolt had raced little this season. In recent years, he has become vulnerable to nagging injuries in his back that radiate into the muscles of his legs. He withdrew on 1 July from the final of the 100m at the Jamaican Olympic trials with a slight tear in his left hamstring muscle. But Jamaica’s rules allowed Bolt to be entered in the Rio Games anyway.
Some US sprinters joked at the time that Bolt always seemed to sustain some injury before the Olympics or world championships. Sure, they said, he would be ready for Rio.
But sprinting is a lot like boxing in the sense that they are individual and elemental sports, one man against another with his legs or his fists. Sleights, real or perceived, become dramatically exaggerated. Bolt said he was disappointed by the joking remarks of Gatlin and other Americans, adding: “I think they have not learned over the years that the more you talk, the more I will want to beat you. It’s one of those things, but I’m looking forward to it, should be exciting and they will feel my full wrath as always.”
In the end, the build-up to the Olympic 100m turned out to be more playful than antagonistic. Bolt held a news conference featuring samba dancers and a Norwegian journalist who broke into a worshipful rap song, saying he hoped that the Jamaican star would again prevail.
As he often does, Bolt reacted relatively slowly to the starting gun, slower than every competitor but one. He is 6-feet-5 inches, and it can take his body some time to unfurl, like a flag. He also may have grown somewhat cautious after that false start at the 2011 championships. But Bolt’s biggest strength is not the first 50m. It is the second 50m.
He is so tall, his legs so long, that he takes only 40 or 41 strides over 100 meters, where other sprinters might need 43 or 44 or even 46.
And so, on Sunday, Gatlin got a quicker start, but Bolt chased him down.
“His legacy will depend on what he does with the rest of his life, Wallechinsky, the Olympic historian, said of Bolt. “The best is if he goes around, giving clinics, and travels the world like Muhammad Ali and becomes well known in Africa and Asia and is someone that everybody loves,” he said. “ Or he could just have a good time for the rest of his life.”
©2016/The New York Times