LONDON — Second-to-last race of the night, second-to-last lane . . . seconds till the stadium goes dead quiet and Usain Bolt’s loping legs come out of a crouch, round the turn and author either history or heartbreak.
What’s a legend-in-waiting to do but casually walk up to a stressed-out volunteer? Drape his arm around her. Make her smile.
“I asked her what’s wrong?” Bolt said after another golden night for the Jamaican sprint king. “She said, ‘I’m nervous.’ Ha-ha.”
On the night he became the first man to win 100- and 200-meter gold medals in consecutive Olympics, Bolt was asked whether he was more important to Jamaica than Bob Marley (“I’m up there, mon, but Bob Marley was g-g-great legend for Jamaica.”), when he wants to try out for Manchester United (“soon”) and whether, if he had not yet been born, he would rather be Carl Lewis or Jesse Owens. (“Definitely Jesse Owens. He didn’t lose a race for years.”)
He had said the double-gold in the sprint events after Beijing would make him a legend, and indeed it has. But Bolt deserved another title Thursday night as he flailed his arms and churned his legs around Olympic Stadium:
He goes down as not merely the most captivating athlete of the London Games, but maybe of all time.
“Do you put yourself in category with Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and Pele now?”
Bolt: “Can’t say if I’m the status of Michael or Ali.” But, “them being the greatest in their sports, and me being the greatest in mine, I’m guessing I’m in that category. But I’ll leave it up to you.”
Good. He’s in that category. He will go down as the man who saved the drug-addled sport of track and field almost by himself. Because his personality was almost as big as his talent, he connected to those who watched him. It was impossible to root against him.
Everybody loves Usain. Especially Usain.
“I’m now a legend, I’m also the greatest athlete to live,” he said after his 19.32 seconds in the 200, his fourth individual sprint gold medal in two straight Olympics, surpassed anything Lewis or any other great American flyer had done at the Games.
Of course, when a man who defies physiological boundaries of speed and time accelerates around a turn now, it’s almost impossible to look at the replay in wonder before the first “Is He The Greatest Ever?” is blurted out.
Greatest Olympian. Sprinter. Athlete. Whatever. Even Thursday night, Bolt’s last individual performance for at least four years on the world’s grandest stage, the urgent need to quantify, compare and dissect almost outweighed the raw exhilaration he drew out of 80,000 spectators. That the 200 meters was run on the same night the lost discipline of the decathlon was waged almost didn’t seem fair to U.S. gold medalist and world record holder Ashton Eaton.
“Ashton is the best athlete to ever walk the planet,” said Trey Hardee, the U.S. silver medalist in the event. “Because the title bestowed upon the Olympic champion in the decathlon has always been world’s greatest athlete.”
“Gustav,” added Eaton, smiling. Yes, Gustav.
Sweden’s King Gustav V, who 100 years ago at the Stockholm Games told decathlete champion Jim Thorpe, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.” (To which Thorpe purportedly replied, “Thanks, King.”)
“There is no fight,” Eaton finally said. “Usain is clearly awesome. Titles are for books.”
With Eaton off the stage inside the media room, Bolt entered. Asked whom he believes is a better athlete, his golden touch returned.
“Well, um, I’m a great athlete,” Bolt began, “ but to do 10 events — especially the 1,500 — I gotta give it to him.”
See. That’s Bolt right there. In three seconds, the journalists’ story line went from Dueling medalists talk junk to each other at press conference! to, “Eh, he can have the title.”
Did we mention he waved to the crowd in very proper English etiquette, a la Queen Elizabeth II with gloves on, prior to putting his feet in the starting blocks? The crowd at the stadium laughed and applauded. Their man — yes, the Brits have co-opted him, too — was seconds away from his last individual race in London.
He crossed his heart, pointed toward the sky and snuggled into the blocks.
He rose. The gun went off. And the most electrifying sight of the Olympics thrust that gangly frame toward history.
Bolt flew around the corner, putting immediate distance between him and the earthlings. Jamaican teammate Yohan Blake saw him go, figured that might be it. But he made ground up on the straightaway, pumping his squat, muscular frame forward, trying to stay with his mentor and the guy he beat in both sprints at the Jamaican trials.
But at 50 meters, Bolt’s stride lengthened. Each step now was made with a singular purpose: to show the upstart 20-year-old who was really the fastest man on the island, to quiet all the detractors once and for all.
With the race his, Bolt, in the same lucky Lane 7 he won the 100 meters in, cocked his head to his left to catch Blake’s eye in Lane 4. Raising his right index finger to his lips, he pantomimed “Shhhh,” rocking everyone to sleep in 19.32 seconds. No world record, but he got the medal he came for, the gold he so wanted again.
Blake and Warren Weir, another Jamaican, blazed across right behind him. An island in the Caribbean barely 50 miles wide was now home to the fastest men on land.
They wore the Jamaican flags as capes, taking a lap around the track. The new Kingston Trio. Bolt wanted to stay out there forever. At the very end, he knelt down on the track and kissed it twice. He unleashed one more of his lightning bolts, tied the flag around his neck and he walked off just as he wanted to walk off — a legend, the greatest sprinter of all time.
“It is his time,” said Blake, shaking his head. “God said it is his time.”
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.
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