Four strides into the 100m semifinal at the Olympic Stadium in Beijing, the possibility crossed his mind. An inexplicable vision crossed a billion other minds before television sets. It was clear as day: There would be a World Championship 100m Final without Usain Bolt. The greatest sprinter of all time had stumbled after that fourth stride; an almighty thud – the collective sounds of hearts sinking across the world – was heard across China. This was not a split-second stumble. It was a proper slip, one that could inspire several thousand memes across the bitter social media universe.
But this was Usain Bolt – reigning Olympic, World and Humankind Champion. Nobody remembered when he hadn’t reached a major final. Heck, nobody remembered when he lost a major final. He put his head down, chugged down the middle and stretched and struggled to reach the finish line at under 10 seconds – a travesty by his standards. What mattered was that he came in first – joint first – and qualified, if only just, for the 100m final. This wasn’t a canter, it was an almighty choke, only rescued by his own instinctive excellence and talent – one that would never be matched again in the sport. Any other athlete, however great, would have known that the race was lost at the moment. But Bolt had almost envisioned himself at the finish line in the final; a semifinal exit was unthinkable. It was never in his scheme of plans. He hadn’t even thought about failure. I mean, who loses in a semifinal?
Moments later, Justin Gatlin – the Armstrong to Bolt’s Batman – and the fastest runner in the world this year – unbeaten since 2013 over 28 consecutive races – ran 9.76 with a lot to spare, to literally jog into the final. He looked confident and ominous. Bolt fans across the globe wondered if their hero even stood a chance. It was preposterous. He would enter the final as an underdog. He had announced himself at this very stadium back in 2008 as the fastest man on earth. And now, he was fighting to keep…afloat? What? Was he ever not afloat? Was he ever not gliding? He looked labored and tired in his races, almost lazy, but surely that wasn’t enough to suggest he was past his best?
He hadn’t had the best of seasons, but there were so signs of a downfall. He was still the best; there was no evidence of him not being the best. Gatlin had run all the races in which Bolt wasn’t running, and had 5 of the 6 fastest times of the year. They hadn’t gone head to head in two years.
And in the final, an hour later, they would run in what was to be Bolt’s greatest challenge as a champion. His greatest threat since he first burst onto the world scene, going unchallenged till Johan Blake caused a flutter. But Blake faded, as did Gay and Powell, both of who were running in the final again. They weren’t the threats though. It was Gatlin – drugs cheat and gold medalist, and the fastest 30+ sprinter in the history of the sport, the fastest American by a mile.
As they lined up for the final, Bolt looked his usual self. He sweated, but he entertained. He knew deep inside that perhaps this was to be the beginning of the end. Perhaps this was as close as he would get to being human. Perhaps this was to be where divinity stopped being divine. Nothing would come easy to him anymore. He was 29, and he was being challenged by a 33-year old who looked invincible. And at 29, he looked older for some reason. He felt older.
With all this in his mind, he got off to his best start of the season. He settled into that familiar ‘Bolt’ rhythm – a portion where he snatches and strangles the race, and glides to the finish line ever so often. Here, Gatlin was right with him. 20 metres from the line, Gatlin was still with him. Bolt didn’t look in any direction. He chugged ahead. He knew he was going to lose. Gatlin looked faster, and caught him easily. But with 20 metres to go, Gatlin suddenly remembered that HE was the favourite to win. And Bolt suddenly remembered that he was the underdog. Bolt didn’t lose form; he thought he was going to lose. He didn’t want to showboat while losing. Gatlin, who glanced to his left, realized that this was Usain Bolt not losing his calm. Gatlin, with the pressure of two years of undefeated starts on him, lost his calm. He lost form, flailed, reached out early and tanked. The pressure of being the best, even if only for a year, showed on him. He acted like a man with everything to lose. And Bolt ran like a man who had lost.
The result: Bolt defeats Gatlin by 0.01 second. A whisker, because perhaps he just had longer fingers. Gatlin was the faster runner – the better sprinter – but the weaker mind. It was a race lost psychologically, and not for lack of skill. There’s no other reason a sprinter loses his form. He begins to panic, and visualize a world in which he isn’t going to win, or a world in which he is being caught by the others. Gatlin would have won the race if he had seen anybody else to his left. But it was Bolt’s face that made him behave the way he did. If Gatlin hadn’t lost form, he’d have stormed home in 9.7 seconds. Instead, he stormed home in 9.8 seconds, to Bolt’s 9.79 – not his best, but just enough to come in second, and by default, come in first because the best didn’t want to be the best today.
That’s what Bolt does. He is familiar with the big moments. They don’t move him. They don’t make him think. He ran as fast as he could, and it wasn’t good enough, but Gatlin was the one who lost it rather than Bolt winning it.
Champions are made in the mind. Usain Bolt made sure we remembered it. He made sure Gatlin remembered it.