RIO DE JANEIRO — Usain Bolt danced again. He may not have many more of these numbers left, so when the music plays and the camera zooms in, it’s worth paying attention. It’s worth trying to follow the beat.
The public-address announcer said his name, but the Fastest Man in the World needed no introduction. Bolt offered a little samba, and the crowd ate it up. The starter’s pistol fired, and Bolt kept dancing, reaching the finish line in the men’s 200-meter race in 19.78 seconds.
He danced on the sport’s dusty record books, winning a third Olympic 200 meters, his eighth gold medal in all. He danced around the track, tapped his feet on what’s possible in the sport and what’s memorable for fans.
“I don’t need to prove anything else,” Bolt said Thursday night, midway through his party. “What else can I do to prove to the world I am the greatest?”
He came to Rio to put his name alongside the best athletes ever, icons such as Muhammad Ali and Pele, and he felt he needed three big races to do it. “I hope after these Games I will be in that bracket,” the Jamaican repeated Thursday night.
Two down, and just one more to go. In many ways, Friday’s 4x100 relay feels like an inevitable exclamation point.
As is usually the case, Thursday’s race was never in doubt. Bolt flew around the curve and came charging down the stretch, not a single soul anywhere close when he crossed the finish line. Canada’s Andre De Grasse finished second (20.02) and France’s Christophe Lemaitre finished third (20.12) — Olympic footnotes. They just happened to have a better view than most to Bolt’s magic. Like a skyscraper or a Van Gogh, Bolt is best experienced and appreciated in-person and up-close.
American LaShawn Merritt is a 400-meter specialist who’d never faced Bolt in the 200. Unlike some younger sprinters, fear was never a part Merritt’s race prep.
“There’s not a god out there. There’s just a person,” he said.
Merritt finished sixth, 0.41 seconds back, and many in attendance might take issue with his assertion. At the least, Bolt is able to do things no person before him thought possible, feats that could stand for generations.
“He’s created a great legacy for himself once he leaves the sport,” Merritt said. “A true champion.”
Bolt was racing without some familiar faces in the field Thursday. Justin Gatlin, the silver medalist in the 200 at last year’s world championships, and Yohan Blake, the Jamaican sprinter who was second to Bolt in the 200 race at the London Games, both failed to advance out of Wednesday’s semifinals.
Bolt, 29, already had topped those two en route to the 100-meter title at these Rio Games, winning that race also for a third straight time. But Thursday was different. The 200 has always been his baby. He was a specialist in the event as a young runner. (He didn’t even seriously take up the 100 until 2007, one year before he broke the world record.) To Bolt, there’s something about flying around the curve, building speed and then flooring the gas pedal down the stretch.
“I think I’m more nervous over 200 meters than anything else for some reason,” he said entering the race. “I always get nervous. The 100 is never really that stressful.”
He’s nervous, of course, because he cares. It’s why he came to Rio with the goal of defending all three Olympic titles but with the dream of somehow breaking his 200 record, somehow moving the mark below 19 seconds where no one might ever reach it again. On Thursday, the record was never in the cards, and despite the gold, Bolt was disappointed with his time.
“On the straight, my body didn’t respond. I’m getting old,” he said.
Since breaking Michael Johnson’s once-unbeatable mark in 2009, Bolt has never gotten particularly close to 19.19. But that didn’t stop him from dreaming. His life, after all, is one big fairy tale, one that took him from a small island in the Atlantic Ocean to international acclaim. He grew up running barefoot, graduating to shoes and high school stardom and eventually to Olympic medals and worldwide fame.
“I mean, the guy’s last name is Bolt . . . You can’t write a story like that,” said Ashton Eaton, who defended his Olympic title in the decathlon Thursday, earning him the unofficial title of World’s Greatest Athlete.
In many ways for Bolt, breaking the 200 record might’ve provided some sense of satisfaction, but the pursuit underscored exactly what Bolt has been chasing in this final stages of his career: just himself.
The others couldn’t catch him Thursday night. They couldn’t catch him these past eight years. And just maybe, no man might ever catch him again.
For his part, Bolt is going to stop trying. Thursday marked his final Olympic medal in an individual race. He insists he won’t be around for the 2020 Tokyo Games. Why would he? He came here to Rio de Janeiro knowing these Olympics would be his last dance.
“I can’t prove anything else,” he said.