Two hours after Usain Bolt had won the triple triple by blasting over the line to win gold for Jamaica in the men’s 4x100m relay, he completed his first exhaustive round of television interviews and strode down into the mixed zone beneath the Stadio Olimpico where hundreds more journalists were waiting for him.
Plaintive cries followed him down from the stands. ‘Bolt, Bolt,’ they yelled as he disappeared from the Olympic arena forever.
Bolt was met by a surreal scene in the mixed zone, as he often is. Madness tends to follow him around and he tends to encourage it. An Olympic handler took it upon herself to guide him from one group of journalists to another with the aid of a Usain Bolt toy depicting the greatest sprinter in history in his famous bow-and-arrow pose.
Usain Bolt celebrate his ninth gold medal after completing an unprecedented triple triple
Someone had affixed a piece of paper to the toy and written ‘Happy Birthday Bolt’, even though it wasn’t Bolt’s birthday. Small detail that no one cared about. Everyone kept wishing him happy birthday anyway. Every time the handler wanted Bolt to stop, she pointed the toy at the group whose turn it was next. Bolt always obliged.
As he walked through, three or four Olympic officials scuttled along on all fours beside him. Why, no one seemed to know. Maybe so they stayed out of camera shot as they took notes. Bolt found it amusing, anyway. After a while, he crouched down beside them and stayed there chatting. The hordes went wild for that.
Before he exited to go to another press conference, he posed happily for a selfie with a journalist and started singing and dancing for the guy’s camera phone. That set off a stampede. Hundreds of journalists thundered over, desperate to get in some sort of group selfie. There is supposed to be a kind of reserve about journalists’ conduct but with Bolt, many simply abandon convention.
Bolt collects the baton from Nickel Ashmeade and finishes like a train in the 4x100m relay
Maybe it is a trite comparison but he is probably the closest thing modern sport has to Muhammad Ali. He has the brilliance and he has the charisma, too. Oceans of it. Quite how the sport of athletics, which has been battered and bruised by scandal after scandal in the past 20 years, can cope with his impending retirement remains to be seen.
Bolt has almost single-handedly kept athletics alive since he took the sport by storm by winning his first three Olympic golds at Beijing in 2008.
As athletics was ravaged by one drugs bust after another, brought low by one fallen star after another, Bolt remained its shining light. While they still had one of the biggest stars in sport, athletics still clung to box-office hope. But now he says it’s over.
Bolt proudly holds the Jamaica flag following his third consecutive gold in the 200m final
He won three more golds here in Rio to take his total to nine and cement his place in athletics history. Only Finland’s Paavo Nurmi and Carl Lewis, of the USA, can match that total in track and field and no sprinter has ever done what he has done.
Bolt admitted he had mixed feelings about walking away from the sport but he insisted he would not compete at Tokyo in 2020, when he will be 33.
‘All the weight has gone from my shoulders now,’ Bolt said, as he reflected on what he had just achieved. ‘There’s some sadness that it’s all over but there is a lot of relief, too. There is a lot of pressure that comes with what I do.
Bolt won three more golds here in Rio to take his total to nine and cement his place in history
‘I hope I have set the bar high enough that no one can do what I have done again. It has taken a lot of sweat, tears and sacrifice to get here but I feel like I have become unbeatable in major championships. I know that people want me to stick around but this is the last one. I’m sorry.’
Where does the sport go from here? How does it survive? Well, they won’t find another like him, just like boxing never found another Ali. There isn’t another Bolt out there. This is a guy who danced a little samba after his race on Friday. Everything he touches turns to gold. He was asked what the sport would do now and he said that he felt the bad times were behind it. It felt, for once, as if he were talking from a prepared script.
‘The bad times are behind us,’ he said, as he sat at a long table, giggling and joking with his Jamaican relay team-mates. ‘People are doing a good job of trying to clean the sport up. We are going forwards now. We are travelling in the right direction.’
That, of course, is debatable. The decision of the IAAF, led by Lord Coe, to ban Russia’s track and field athletes from these Games was undoubtedly a step forward and a suggestion that a harder line will be taken. Then again, Bolt’s events at these Games were still riddled with drugs cheats. Two-time offender Justin Gatlin, the most notorious of them, was booed almost every time he appeared in the Olympic Stadium.
Bolt burst onto the athletics scene with a series of remarkable displays at the Beijing Games
Bolt is box-office. He draws the spectators. On the nights he raced in Rio, the crowds were healthy. On the nights he didn’t, they were more sparse. No one else has his draw. Not even remotely close. Nor is there anyone on the horizon. Sure, the new men’s 400m Olympic champion and world record holder, Wayde van Niekerk, made a dramatic entrance here but he will not replace Bolt. Not even close.
‘Mission accomplished,’ Bolt said yesterday morning, but athletics faces its own mission now. The reality is that it is going to take far more than just one man to fill the gap left by Bolt. Bolt papered over the cracks while he was competing. He allowed athletics to get away with it.
The crowds still came because he was there. Without him, a harsher light will be shone on the sport. Lord Coe will come under even more pressure to rid it of cheats.
Some of the empty seats were because local people could not afford to buy tickets. Some were because there are few Brazilian stars in athletics.
And some were because the public has grown weary with the steady flow of debunked heroes. Disillusion has set in. Athletics is struggling to make its song heard and Elvis has just left the building.