Usain Bolt came on the sprinting scene as a highly talented 15-year-old with an awkward running style. Today, a decade and a half later as he prepares to say farewell to track and field, the Leo St Leo has, under the guiding hand of home-based Jamaican coach Glen Mills, changed the face of athletics and won millions of fans the world over with his unique accomplishments and his infectious personality.
“When Usain Bolt wins a race,” says Jamaican reggae artiste Chronixx, in I am Bolt, the docu-film that focuses on the sprinter’s build-up to the 2016 Olympics, “the whole world feels like they win a race. It’s a feeling I can’t explain.”
And in Rio last year, the sprinter again underlined his uncanny ability to do the unthinkable, completing the sprint double for a third straight time. For good measure, he also again anchored Jamaica to gold in the 4x100m, a truly remarkable achievement.
He was, however, bereft of his ninth gold medal when the Jamaicans were stripped of the 4x100m title they had won in Beijing in 2008 because Nesta Carter tested positive for a banned substance.
Like tennis sisters Venus and Serena Williams, Bolt has over the years been subjected to frequent drugs tests, in and out of competition. In vain. The authorities have never once found what they were certain they would find. And they scoff at his oft-repeated claim that the secret to his sprinting success lies in the blue food that was long the basis of his diet growing up in Trelawny’s Sherwood Content.
In an interview, Bolt revealed that he had been tested four times in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics and he invited the authorities to test him again as often as they liked because “we know we’re clean.”
Coach Mills too joined that party, telling the Jamaica Gleaner: “We will test anytime, any day, any part of the body. […] he doesn’t even like to take vitamins.”
In Berlin in the 2009 World Championships, he sped where no man had raced before, scorching the track to win the 100m final in 9.58 sec. He then went on to break the 200m world record in a stunning 19.19 sec, shaving more than 0.1 of a second from the then existing mark of 19.30, also in his name.
As if winning gold in nine Olympic and 11 World Championships isn’t enough, this extraordinary sprinter still holds both these records.
Today, however, he’s up against it. Unable to get, as has been his wont, into his usual fluent stride and cruise past his opponents down the straightaway, Bolt arguably asks too much of his aging hamstring.
Taking advantage, the hosts, Great Britain, cop gold, edging out the USA. And Japan come through to cop bronze as the hamstrung Jamaican drops to the track in agony.
It is over. Bolt’s magnificent run of sprint victories is no more. Insult is piled on injury; out he goes without a medal. Few presumably recall—maybe the athletics experts and the cognoscenti do—how, as an injury-prone 18-year-old in Helsinki a dozen years earlier, he had limped across the line last in the 200m final in his first World Championships.
“Heart-wrenching,” Jamaica’s lead-off runner Omar McLeod describes it. “Tragic,” teammate Blake concurs.
Despite his undisguised desire to join boxing and football legends Muhammad Ali and Pelé up where the sporting air is really rare, Bolt is disappointed but not devastated. Addressing the media in his last news conference as an active professional athlete, he seems to have already come to terms with his mortality, his now lost aura of invincibility.
“Someone said to me Muhammad Ali lost his last fight also,” he said, “so don’t be stressed about that.
“I’ve proven myself year in, year out and I don’t think one championship or one race or the fact that I didn’t end my last race is going to change the fact of what I have done in the sport.”
Once more, the speedy heir apparent Blake is quick to concur.
“He has been carrying Jamaica on his shoulders for how many years?” he asks reporters. Then, addressing himself directly to the living legend, he adds, “I can’t kill you for that. You have done it so many times, we just have to send our love and support.”
So what is the next port of call for USB?
Bolt is rumoured to have his heart set on playing professional football, but IAAF President Lord Sebastian Coe is reported to have serious plans for him to work alongside the IAAF.
“I’m not sure what I’ll be doing specifically but my agent is talking to Mr Coe to figure out what is the best way I can help the sport,” Bolt says in the London media session. “I love track and field and it gave me everything I have.”
Today, the strains of Bob Marley’s Jamming and One Love fill the London air as he strides off the performance stage before his adoring fans. Flashing a broad smile, he stops and, for the final time, strikes his trademark bow-and-arrow pose.
On the track at least, Usain the Great has now shot his Bolt.