Tom English: Usain Bolt’s legend set to live on and on
USAIN Bolt’s hold over the world of athletics is vice-like, but his grasp of what it is to be a legend is another matter.
Bolt believes that to become immortal in his sport he needs to back up his victory in Sunday’s 100m with another in Thursday’s 200m, reckons that only then can he be called a true great of the sprinting game. He says it like he means it and fair play to him for that. But it’s nonsense of course.
When Bolt lined up for the 100m final, there were 20m people in the UK watching him. The night before, on the greatest night for British Olympics, and maybe even the finest night in the history of all British sport, the peak audience taking in the dramatic three-part act of Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah was 17.1m, When Andy Murray trounced Roger Federer in the hours before Bolt trounced the world, 10.7m watched him do it. Just over half Bolt’s number.
Only a legend can do this. Only a legend can bring out the likes of the American basketball dream team, the storied LeBron James among them, and get them acting like schoolboys. James pulled out a phone when Bolt appeared and started filming. “The whole world is going to watch this tonight,” James said. “This is the biggest event of them all, right here.” King James is one of the most narcissistic sportsmen on the entire planet but even he seems to know his place in the grand scheme of things. In the world order there is Bolt – and then there is everybody else.
He has transcended athletics a long time and, my, how the game’s authorities must have heaved a sigh of relief when all the hype and hoopla that built up around his supposed vulnerability was trampled to dust. There has never been one like Bolt. He is God’s gift to the running game and, Lord, how they need him. To watch Bolt joshing in the aftermath of his victory on Sunday was to know that he doesn’t just have it in his body, he has it in his personality. He’s a showman, a magnetic presence. “People doubted me,” he said, speaking into a microphone in a mixed zone full of journalists prepared to batter each other for a spot higher up in the queue. Then Bolt paused for impact, smiled and said: “You guys doubted me.” And the place laughed. Here he was scolding those who thought he couldn’t do it and yet he was saying it in such a gently mocking tone that everybody thought him cool. And he was. He stood there for 15 minutes, moved along the line and gave 10 minutes more to a group of Jamaican journalists, drew breath and did his press conference. The charisma poured out of him, the laid-back brilliance of the guy was intoxicating.
The aura had slipped, some said. Well, they said that about Muhammad Ali, too, when he went into the ring with George Foreman with a world of doubters looking on. That is what made Sunday night arguably the greatest show of his life, greater even than Beijing, a moment we thought would never be topped, and greater than Berlin in 2009, which still stands as the night he set the world record.
The narrative of his win on Sunday is what makes it the greatest achievement of his life; the troubled build-up through injury, the emergence of Yohan Blake, the re-emergence of an American sprinting posse who were posting some seriously fast times. Through all of this – and the endless speculation of his reduced powers – Bolt remained cool. That’s the word for it. None of it bothered him, at least not greatly. He knew that if he brought his best stuff to the track then nobody would beat him, always trusted in his ability to deliver when the lights went on and the pressure was at its greatest. The race was compelling. None of Bolt (.165 seconds, exactly as it was in Beijing), Blake (.179) nor Justin Gatlin (.178) had great reaction times to the gun, but 15m into the drive phase, Gatlin was clearly in the lead, with Blake and Bolt both well behind. After 40m, Bolt began to pound on Gatlin’s door. “He’s 6-5, you can’t miss him,’’ said Gatlin. “He’s right there. When his legs lift, you see it, you feel it.’’
Blake was eating up ground on Gatlin, too, and soon passed him but it was already too late. Bolt was gone – real gone. “I think I started to shuffle a little bit,’’ said Blake. “Because I wanted to reach the line fast. I think Usain won it in the last part. He just got the better of me. It was fun, anyway. Me and Bolt are still friends.’’
But the younger man knows his place now. This was an education for him. Sunday was the moment when he learned that you can triumph over Bolt in the Jamaican trials and you can beat him in the world championships – Bolt infamously false-started and got disqualified – but on the night that counted most, Bolt was a different animal.
“He’s an unbelievable sprinter,’’ said Richard Thompson, of Trinidad and Tobago, who finished seventh. “The entire world thinks he’s unbeatable and right now he is. He almost broke that world record again, so I would say there’s a high probability that he’s going to break it again at some point. Maybe this year.’’
One by one the fallen worshipped at the altar. “To be honest,” said Gatlin. “I went out there to challenge a mountain. I went out there to challenge the odds. Not just myself and everything I’ve been through, but the legacy of Usain Bolt. I had to go out there and be fearless.”
He was. Gatlin equalled the race of his life and it was good enough for third. Talking later, Bolt was so chilled about it all that got to wondering if this was the same man who was at the centre of the sporting world, the fastest guy in history, the legend. Sitting at the top table alongside Black and Gatlin he looked so at ease with himself and what he had done and so focused on what he has yet to do. Praise be for that. The rumours of his demise, like so many rumours about so many greats before him, were grossly, hilariously exaggerated.
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