Speed is an ethereal possession, but Usain Bolt has been so famously fast for so long there’s a suggestion floating around that a new noun be coined in his honor. Sprinters would heretofore be called bolters, competing in bolts.
Jamaica’s Bolt, the pride of an island renowned for its track stars, stamped his name on another Olympics by winning the 100-meter dash in a Sunday showdown with Justin Gatlin.
Bolt won his seventh Olympic gold medal by overtaking Gatlin with 20 meters to go. He did it with his usual style, touching fist to heart rather than leaning across the line.
Bolt clocked a 9.81, the slowest time of his three Olympic victories and well off his 2009 world record of 9.58, but it was enough after a rocky start to catch Gatlin, who was second in 9.89, and Canada’s Andre De Grasse, third in 9.91.
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Bolt burnished his iconic status a week before his 30th birthday. He became the first athlete to win three Olympic 100-meter dashes, which he accomplished at three consecutive Games. It’s the first chapter of a three-part plan, a triple-triple, in which Bolt intends to win the 200-meter dash and the 400 relay, too, just as he did in 2008 and 2012.
“Somebody said I can become immortal,” Bolt said. “Two more golds to go and I can sign off. Immortal.”
The effervescent Bolt blew kisses and bowed to spectators who packed Olympic Stadium and chanted his name. They were delighted to witness history. Bolt delivered, as always.
He shook hands with the Rio mascot, hugged his parents, placed a yellow cap on his head backwards, took off his golden spikes and then, barefoot and beaming, struck his trademark “To Di World” pose, as if shooting a lightning bolt into the sky. The crowd roared for the most popular man at the Olympics.
He also paused to join the heptathlon medalists on their podium for a selfie and congratulate men’s 400-meter winner Wayde Van Niekerk of South Africa, who broke Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old world record.
At 6-foot-5 Bolt can’t burst out of the blocks. He has to extract himself. He was in second-to-last place, struggling for traction, and the smoothly efficient Gatlin was in first after the first phase of the race.
But once Bolt unfolded his legs and hit his 8-foot stride, he flowed into the lead. He hit the tape with a calm expression and raised an index finger as Gatlin grimaced.
“When I got going, when I got to 50 meters I could tell I was going to catch him,” Bolt said. “I knew he’d get his signature start so I wanted to stay cool to the finish. I personally think this is my weakest event so it was a relief to get it done.”
Gatlin’s best time of the season, the 9.80 he ran at U.S. Olympic trials, would have won the rather pedestrian race. But again, he failed to dethrone Bolt.
“He rises to the occasion, he is a great runner,” said Gatlin, who lost to Bolt by .01 seconds at the 2015 world championships.
In 2008, inside Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium, Bolt blazed to world records which would have been lower had he not eased up to celebrate. In the 100, he dropped his hands then slapped his chest before he crossed the line.
In 2012, cheered on by London’s Jamaican community, he clowned his way to three more golds. He put finger to lips at the end of the 200, shushing those who doubted his fitness and dismissed his stated goal of becoming “not just a legend but a living legend.”
Rio 2016 is his third act. When introduced he smiled, did a quick dance vogue and pointed at the camera while stone-faced Gatlin stared straight ahead.
Likened to a heavyweight fight, the Rumble in Rio lived up to expectations. Bolt retained his title. Round 2 commences Tuesday in the 200 heats.
Bolt is dominating his sport the same way Michael Phelps and Simone Biles have dominated theirs.
Bolt appeared to be at his most vulnerable in Rio. Persistent lower back problems led to a slight tear of his left hamstring and forced him to withdraw from Jamaica’s national championships. He has only raced once since then, in a 200, and only raced in one 100 this season, two months ago in Kingston.
The playful party animal summons uncommon intensity when the stakes are highest. The more eyes on him, the more he wants to entertain.
“It wasn’t a perfect race but the fact that I won – we’re here to win – I’m happy with that,” Bolt said, attributing the slowish times to the 70-minute turnaround between semis and final.
His foil Sunday was Gatlin, twice penalized for doping. His first suspension was for amphetamines, which he argued he had long taken to treat Attention Deficit Disorder. His second ban, for four years, was for excessive testosterone. He said he was a victim of sabotage when a massage therapist rubbed testosterone cream on his buttocks. He has steadfastly maintained his innocence.
When U.S. swimmer Lilly King said athletes with doping records should not be allowed to compete in the Olympics, Gatlin responded by saying, “I’ve served that time.”
Gatlin was upset that he was booed Sunday.
“My whole issue is it’s been a decade,” he said. “People don’t even know me. The athletes have respect for each other. I’d like to see everyone have respect in the audience as well.”
Gatlin, 34, a Pensacola native who trains in Orlando under former Olympian Dennis Mitchell — himself penalized for drug violations — was attempting to become the oldest man to win the Olympic 100. He became the oldest medalist. He won gold at the 2004 Athens Games and set a world record in 2006 before his record was expunged and he was banished. He’s said he was inspired to make a comeback while watching Bolt on TV during the Beijing Games.
Bolt has never tested positive for performance-enhancers, but Jamaica’s anti-doping program has been criticized for shoddy enforcement.
Bolt has said that Rio will be his last Olympics and next summer’s London world championships will be his farewell meet.
He grew up in the mountainous countryside near Trelawny, fetching buckets of water, playing cricket and eating the yams he considers to be his magic fuel.
His parents, Wellesley and Jennifer, still live there and were in the stands to watch the son who has always been fast, always been a prankster.
Only Carl Lewis in the long jump and Al Oerter in the discus have won more Olympic golds in a single event, with four each.
Bolt said he may try to break his 200 record, one of his goals before he retires.
“If I can get a good night’s rest after the 200 semis there’s a possibility I can go for the record here,” he said. “That’s something I really want.”
In the 400, South Africa’s Van Niekerk broke one of the most durable world records in the sport with a clocking of 43.03 that replaced Johnson’s 1999 mark of 43.18. Van Niekerk, running blind in lane 8, extended his large lead down the homestretch and beat defending Olympic champion Kirani James of Grenada and 2008 Olympic champ LaShawn Merritt of the U.S., who was third. It was the second time in history that three runners in the same race ran under 44 seconds; the first time occurred at the 2015 world championships, where the three were separated by just three tenths of a second.