Rio de Janeiro – All week, Usain Bolt turned his races into performance art. He would seize the lead, approach the finish line, turn his head and grin.
He was comical and yet dominant until Thursday night, when the king and clown prince of footracing, his legs admittedly heavy and his career admittedly terminal, raced in what might have been his last individual Olympic event.
The 200 meters is his favorite, his specialty. The race suits his long stride and midrace acceleration, and allows him to make up for his traditionally slow starts. He wanted to not only win an eighth gold medal in eight Olympic tries but also break his own world record of 19.19 seconds.
Running in a light rain, he erased the staggered lead of runners on the outside of him quickly, surged ahead at the beginning of the straightaway and, using a stride seemingly twice as long as any of his peers’, pulled away easily.
But this wasn’t easy, and Bolt could not pretend that it was. He did not smile or celebrate as the finish line loomed. He finished in 19.78. Upon seeing his time, he mouthed, “Why?”
“I ran hard around the turn,” he said. “ On the straight, my body didn’t respond. I’m getting old.”
Old enough to retire? “I want to say so,” he said. “I think this is the last one.”
What is most remarkable about this otherwise unremarkable performance is the history that surrounds it. Bolt has raced in eight Olympic events over eight years. He has earned a gold medal in all eight. On Friday night, he will race in the 4 x 100 relay with his Jamaican teammates in an attempt to sweep nine events over three Olympics.
Only two track and field athletes have ever won nine Olympic gold medals: Paavo Nurmi and Carl Lewis.
Nurmi was a distance runner. Lewis competed in four Olympics and won four of his golds in the long jump. He won five golds as a sprinter. Michael Johnson won four.
No sprinter has ever done what Bolt has done, and perhaps no Olympic athlete has ever combined such dominance with such showmanship.
After the race, Bolt knelt and kissed the track, then unveiled his trademark “To Di World” post.
In the semifinals, Canada’s Andre De Grasse had pushed Bolt to the finish line. Bolt had wagged a finger playfully at De Grasse but later told Brazilian TV that he wasn’t thrilled to be pushed in a race that he merely wanted to survive.
Thursday, De Grasse took silver in 20.02. France’s Christophe Lemaitre took bronze in 20.12. Bolt beat De Grasse by .24 seconds. De Grasse finished just .21 ahead of seventh place.
When Bolt won in Beijing, he proclaimed his greatness. When he won in London, he called himself a “legend.” His goal in Rio has been athletic immortality.
He craves a place in the pantheon. “I am trying to be one of the greatest,” he said. “Be among Ali and Pele. I hope after these Games I will be in that bracket.”
Does he belong?
Muhammad Ali became a global figure at a time when boxing was king. Unlike Bolt, Ali did not go undefeated in his most important competitions.
Pele was the most famous player ever to play the world’s most popular sport, and he executed moves on a soccer field that had not been seen before.
Unlike Ali, when Bolt has a bad day he doesn’t have his brain and body damaged. Unlike Pele, Bolt did not have to depend on — or overcome — the play of teammates, at least not in the 100 and 200.
Bolt can make this argument: Sprinting may be the purest and most accessible form of sport. No equipment is required, and the competitions are not divided into weight classes, and there are no judges required to interpret the action.
His dominance requires no qualifiers. Bolt is the fastest man in history. Maybe he should have smiled again.