Usain Bolt made the absurd seem like normal
Few things in life lend themselves to hyperbole as sport does. A top-edged slog-sweep always goes “miles in the air”, the football always misses the goalpost “by a whisker”, and Roger Federer has been “on fire” this year.
The point is, where regular life is punctuated by a series of question marks and ellipses, sport almost exclusively deals in exclamation marks... swinging easily between “sensational!” and “shocking!”.
Usain Bolt, provider of many happy “!!!” moments in a career spanning over a decade, hung up his golden boots last weekend at the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London, his journey ending in the saddest imaginable way. For the few who missed it, Bolt won bronze, not gold, in the 100m final, before limping off in the 4x100m relay in the final race of his career.
So what made Bolt special? The fact that he could run really fast, obviously. The fact that he pushed the limits of what’s physically possible with every race he ran. The fact that he stayed clean in a sport historically scarred by drugs.
Also, the fact that he seemed to have so much fun doing what he did. At the elite level of sport, where every inch counts, it must be easy to get drawn into the intensity of it all—the defining image of most athletes features a frown, a grimace, an exultant scream. But it’s hard to picture Bolt without a big grin on his face.
There’s another factor that set him apart. One of the many clichés trotted out when discussing sport is that no individual is bigger than the game. Bolt was one of the few exceptions to this rule. People didn’t watch him run because they followed athletics. They watched athletics because Bolt was running. People who followed little or no sport stayed up to see the long-limbed Jamaican fly for 9-and-something seconds. A bit like Seabiscuit filling up the cheap seats in Laura Hillenbrand’s remarkable novel about the racehorse with short legs and a big heart.
Tiger Woods at his peak did this for golf. Muhammad Ali did this (and much more) in the boxing ring. This wasn’t sport for the fans, this was sport for the masses.
The world championships ended with a massive farewell for Bolt. There were speeches. There were fireworks. There was a montage of his best races on the big screen. There was a lovely story about a “gangly, 15-year-old Bolt dancing around and enjoying himself” after winning the 200m gold at the world junior championships. There was a final lap of honour on the track he made his own. There was a piece of that track framed and gifted to him. There were many tears—both in the stands and in TV rooms the world over.
It was all a bit over-the-top, but it didn’t at any point feel out of place.
Which is a bit like Bolt’s relationship with hyperbole.... Whereas you know that the ball definitely didn’t go “miles in the air”, and are 100% certain Federer was never really “on fire”, Bolt charging down the straight “like a freight train” somehow sounds less absurd. Like few others before him, Bolt managed to put hyperbole in the realm of possibility.
Deepak Narayanan, a journalist for nearly 20 years, now runs an events space, The 248 Collective, in Goa. He tweets at @deepakyen.