Usain Bolt did not want to be a mere legend. He wanted to be a living legend. His goal was to walk around Kingston, Jamaica, mix music at nightclubs, eat yams at his restaurant — all while enjoying his status as mythic hero.
Typically, legends are usually dead or old. But Bolt does things no human has ever done. Astounding things.
He turned a footrace into a piece of performance art Thursday inside Olympic Stadium. When the stopwatch struck 19.32 seconds, Bolt had captured his prized piece of immortality. He became the first man to win the 100- and 200-meter dashes at successive Olympics.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Bolt won the sprints and anchored the 400 relay in world-record time. In London, he has not lowered his records, but he’s 2 for 2 in gold medals, with the relay to come Saturday.
In the 200, he unfurled his endless legs from the blocks, drove hard and turned the curve into a slingshot. He thundered down the home straightaway with a lead he would not relinquish, even with Yohan Blake threatening from Lane 4. From Lane 7, Bolt glanced at Blake several times, because he felt a twinge in his lower back and figured he better “keep an eye” on his training partner.
Three strides before the finish line, Bolt stole another look, knew he was going to win and eased up. He raised index finger to lips to silence those who doubted his work ethic, start technique, fitness and desire.
“I am now a living legend, basking in my glory,” Bolt said.
He makes these declarations with an implied wink, the way Muhammad Ali used to. Afterward, Bolt was asked to compare himself to Ali, Pélé, Michael Jordan and Bob Marley. All in the same sentence.
“Jordan was the greatest in his sport, and I’m the greatest in mine,” he said. “I’ll let people decide that. To me, I’m a legend.”
There is a reason Bolt has accomplished a unique double-double. He is unique. He is 6-5 and his 9-foot stride devours the ground. But sprinting is also about pushing your feet off the track as quickly as possible. Bolt has surprising tempo for a big man. He would be a decent tap dancer.
Steven Francis, coach of the rival MVP track club in Kingston, said if Bolt, 25, had been born in the United States “he’d be a point guard in the NBA.” Good thing he was born in Jamaica, a nation of track and field experts, where his cricket coaches knew his speed was special even on an island of exceptional sprinters.
He’s not poetry in motion. There’s too much of him. He’s more like ska in motion, blaring horns, a rousing chorus. With those long arms and legs, he will never be a picture of precision, but as long as he doesn’t screw up his start, his opponents — like the 5-9 Blake — will always have to chase him down.
Bolt is a spectator sport, and not just for the nine seconds it takes him to run 100 meters or the 19 seconds it takes him to run half a lap. He brings a sense of anticipation to the track. You could feel the crowd heating to a full boil.
He tries to top his pre-race standup routine as well as his records. For the 200 he gave a Queen Elizabeth wave — stiff hand moving mechanically as spectators caught on and laughed with him.
Then there’s the encore. This time, he did pushups instead of a somersault. He grabbed a photographer’s camera and shot pictures of Blake. He hugged complete strangers. He vogued in his archer’s pose, shooting a lightning bolt into the sky.
His spontaneity imparts the sheer joy of running, of winning.
“I made myself a legend,” he said. “I don’t really know what to do next — the 100, the 200, another event. My coach and I will discuss it. I’m not ready to retire yet. I love the sport. To me, track and field is lots of fun.”
Bolt was asked about the sport’s dark side. He was asked if the Jamaican drug team — whoops, sorry, a slip of the tongue, a reporter said, he meant the track team — was drug-free. Bolt said hard, clean work was the formula. Bronze medalist Warren Weir confirmed that Bolt is out practicing daily at 5:30 a.m.
He was asked to compare himself to Carl Lewis and Jesse Owens. Bolt stopped smiling when he spoke of Lewis, who has been candid on the subject of performance-enhancing drugs.
“I always respected Jesse Owens,” Bolt said. “But — this will be controversial — I’ve lost respect for Carl Lewis. What he says about track athletes is downgrading them. For an athlete out of the sport to say that — it’s upsetting. It’s for attention.”
Lewis was a great sprinter and the world’s best long jumper. But he was never as embraceable as Bolt. He hasn’t been an ambassador for track. Bolt is the kind of guy who tried to put the young volunteer carrying his gear at ease — just seconds before his race.
“She looked kind of nervous,” he said. “I asked why. She said, ‘I’m so excited.’ That’s what I like to do, bump fists with them, interact with them, show appreciation to them for carrying our bags.”
Showman, yes. Prima donna, no.
“Whether he is in front of one person or 60,000, he is the same,” said Bolt’s agent, Ricky Sims. “He really, genuinely is.”
Bolt’s upbringing imbued him with empathy — his ability to connect with people. In rural Trelawny, he grew up in a little house with no modern plumbing. One of his chores was fetching buckets of water. No matter how many millions he earns, he will always remember the barefoot boy racing his friends.
With due respect to Michael Phelps, track isn’t swimming. Track athletes can’t compete in three relays and five individual events. Each race requires different skills and training, rather than a variation on the same essential stroke. That is why what Michael Johnson, Lewis and Bolt have done is so unusual.
Just wait until Bolt tries the 400.
“I hate the 400,” he said.
But living legends can’t rest on their laurels.