“The legend becomes immortal” could be one phrase the British middle distance legend turned BBC commentator is mulling over as the Blue Riband event of the entire Games plays out in Rio’s Maracana Stadium. Immortality is certainly Bolt’s ultimate aim. Not literally of course, but he has spoken of how he wants to be spoken about for decades and centuries to come alongside the select band who would qualify for a sporting Mount Rushmore should there ever be such a thing – “Pele, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Usain Bolt” would be his own ideal vision of how that might look.
The vast majority of the more-than-usual number of people awake and glued to their TV sets at 2.25am UK time a week tomorrow will do so in expectation of witnessing the latest chapter in the ongoing legend that is Bolt. The truth is that victory is far from inevitable, which merely adds a fresh layer of intrigue to the event which, every four years, captivates the globe as the race to decide its fastest human resident unfolds in a dizzying blur.
Bolt came within a whisker of losing the world championships 100 metres in Beijing last year when former drugs cheat Justin Gatlin of the USA seemed to have it won only for a late stumble which allowed the slow-starting Jamaican, whose 2015 had been marred by injury, to take him on the line.
On that occasion Cram said in commentary that Bolt had “saved the sport” as Gatlin, the villain of the piece, was thwarted in a championships played out against a backdrop of yet more doping controversy, a depressing drumbeat which has continued right up until the start of these Games in Rio.
Bolt, 30 later this month, has had more setbacks this year. A hamstring injury affected him at the Jamaican trials and his fastest 100m of the year (9.88) is a mere sixth best. Gatlin has the best at 9.80 and the champion from Athens 2004 is confident he can reclaim his title.
It is 36 years since Scotland’s Allan Wells won the 100m for Great Britain in 10.25 secs in Moscow and he believes next weekend’s showdown is on a knife-edge and could go either way.
“It’s probably 50-50 in my mind at the moment,” said Wells. “I think Bolt thinks, in his own mind, that it’s better for him in the 200 metres. I feel that he hasn’t done enough running, not enough competition and he’s had that hamstring problem in the Jamaican Championships.
“I know he’s had some treatment in Germany and he ran 19.89 in the 200 at the London Anniversary Games recently – not that great by his standards – but he should take that in Rio. I think he’s going to find the 100 difficult though.”
Wells feels the American will have learned from last summer and is even more of a danger in Rio.
“If Gatlin hadn’t blown up at the finish he would have won that race,” continued Wells. “I think Gatlin will go in feeling he has the beating of Bolt if he can just hold things together for the full 100 metres.”
For those who shudder at such a prospect, Wells does have words of comfort. He is not saying Bolt will lose, just that there is a chance.
“I always enjoyed the rounds situation, psychologically working your way up through a competition, and I think Bolt is the same. I think the competition and the atmosphere will lift him.
“So much of it is psychological at that level and I think he is strong enough to avoid the kind of doubts that might pop into a normal person’s head. But I can’t help but think he’s going to find it tough to win that 100.
“If you look at that 200 time in London the other week of 19.89, well that is effectively seven and a half yards back on his world record for the 200. That’s a long way. If you were to transfer that to his 100 then you could picture him posting something like a 9.92. Of course he’ll be quicker in Rio but will it be quick enough?”
Bolt fans will have to keep the faith that he can find that little bit extra and bring out his legendary sense of occasion. The Jamaican journalists who follow him the closest believe he can go below 9.70, which should almost certainly be enough to get the gold. However, anyone hoping for a world record to go along with it are being too greedy and in for a long wait, according to Wells.
“I think any chance of records were gone before 2012,” said the Scot. “Every athlete comes to a point physically and psychologically when you are at your absolute peak, I remember mine, and I think that his peak was clearly when he broke those world records at the Berlin world championships in 2009.
“I wouldn’t say he is in decline now but he is certainly not at that level anymore. He’s not going to run 9.58s and 19.19s. These are going to be world records for a long, long time.”
It is often forgotten that when the soon-to-be-disgraced Gatlin won the 100m at Athens in 2004, a prodigious young Bolt was making his Olympic debut. He was knocked out in the first round and received criticism from the local press and, more markedly, from his mentor and coach Glen Mills, for not working hard enough. In the years which have followed his feats have often seemed effortless, but as a fellow member of the Olympic champion club, Wells knows that is just a facade.
“As a character. I was very focused, people maybe thought I was too tense but I was usually more relaxed than maybe came across and I think Bolt is a more serious character inside than he sometime appears to be,” said Wells. “He’s a great entertainer, but he is always focused and in the zone at the times he needs to be. I know he is very determined. You don’t win these medals just lying about. You have to work hard for it.
“He is a very special athlete, but that counts for nothing if you don’t put the work in.”
The world hopes that the Special One has some more magic dust left to sprinkle on a sport that could use all it can get and that the TV commentators are reaching for the thesaurus in search for superlatives for a good while yet.