Three seconds into the 100-meter Olympic final on Sunday night, a Jamaican sprinter named Usain Bolt had seven runners in front of him. He was last by a whisker. His reaction time was the second slowest. And he was just beginning to uncoil. Like a flag, like the sprint at the back of a gun, like Super Mario eating a mushroom. Like Bolt in the final 25 meters.
Less than seven seconds later, the lanky athlete had finished the race – first. Eight hundredth of a second ahead of the leader for most part of the race, the 34-year-old Justin Gatlin, who had won this title twelve long years ago in Athens. This was a peculiar dash. Everyone expected Bolt to start slow, as he always does, but with 50 meters to go, he was still only fifth. His long strides had just begun to kick in. His rhythm had just begun to be divine. With six giant strides, he strolled past each of them, and finished a length ahead of his closest rival.
The thing with Usain Bolt is, even eight years after he first captured the world’s imagination by winning his first gold medal in Beijing, a 100m dash is almost slowed down to accommodate his vision. If you look closely, a race never seems to finish until he is leading, all of the 69 professional races he has won (out of 74) since that first medal. Only once he is past the others, the finish line appears magically, at long last – time is stretched, and those 10 seconds are owned by him. He stretches the track and times his strides to boss those last 25 meters. And he has rarely failed. When was the last time you watched Bolt lose a televised important race?
His winning time of 9.81 seconds was slower than his Beijing time and his London time. It was slower than all his World Championship final times. But it was faster than seven other men on the track. And that’s all it needed to be. He started to beat his chest before flashing past the finish line; he always realizes his victory two seconds before the line. While he rolls past as if the result was never in doubt, you notice the others straining and dipping with every pore of their being to scramble for positions. You could hear Gatlin shriek, more out of frustration than power – because he had Bolt, just like he had last year at the World Championships in Beijing, until the final few seconds. He had choked last year, but this time, Bolt won on his own accord. The Jamaican didn’t need anybody else to make mistakes. He had come from the back of the field to win a race he had never lost at the Olympics. Only moments ago, he gasped with his hands over his mouth as he watched on a TV screen – like all of us – the world-record-shattering 400m run by South African Wayde van Neikerk. Wayde had broken Michael Johnson‘s 17-year-old record, racing in lane 8, blind to his competition, defeating the previous two Olympic champions in an inspired burst. Bolt knew, then, that perhaps he was upstaged on this night. It wasn’t his event, but all he would do now is win on his own, and then win twice more over the week, hoping that, by the end, he has upstaged the entire universe, and people will only remember Bolt and Phelps in the same breath for Rio 2016.
The numbers are astounding, and even more so, given that Bolt will never race in another Olympic edition again:
7 – number of gold medals Bolt has won in three Olympics so far.
7 – number of finals he has participated in, in three different events (100m, 200, 4x100m relay), making for a 100% success rate.
2 – number of events left for him to compete in this week, his final Olympic races, aiming for nine golds totally.
0 – number of 100-meter champions who have won three gold medals in Olympic history. Bolt is the first; has done it in three consecutive editions.
3 – number of times Bolt has been awarded the World Laureus Sportsman of the Year.
19 – number of gold medals he has won since 2008, out of 21 major races over the three formats.
7 – number of world records he has broken since turning pro.