When Usain Bolt retires, sparting world will face the challenge of replacing the irreplaceable

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Published: August 21, 2016 6:16:29 AM

'Gatlin got a good enough start, Bolt’s a bit slow to begin. He’s got some work to do; Bolt’s stretching out now… he’s coming after him. He’s immortal now!’ The TV commentator was spot on amid such...

But Usain Bolt is not only athletics’ hero. He is the ‘Muhammad Ali’ of the 21st century. Of course, Ali was a lot more than his genius in the boxing ring. But Usain Bolt is not only athletics’ hero. He is the ‘Muhammad Ali’ of the 21st century. Of course, Ali was a lot more than his genius in the boxing ring.

‘Gatlin got a good enough start, Bolt’s a bit slow to begin. He’s got some work to do; Bolt’s stretching out now… he’s coming after him. He’s immortal now!’ The TV commentator was spot on amid such high-octane soukous. Usain Bolt is a proud Jamaican, but his running somehow has an eclectic mixture of Graceland, as Paul Simon would attest. So a comparison to soukous shouldn’t be out of place.

Bolt has long outgrown his sport. At Rio de Janeiro, he became immortal, winning his third straight 100 m and 200 m Olympic gold medals and getting bigger than the Games in the process. Athletics’ reputation, of late, is terrible. It has become a hotbed of drug cheats and state-sponsored doping. Russia has been thrown out of Rio 2016 for collective transgression, allegedly aided by government agencies.

Justin Gatlin, who stood just a couple of lanes away from Bolt in the 100 m final and was the champion’s main rival, carried an inglorious doping past. No wonder he was roundly booed, while Bolt received hysterical cheers at the Olympic Stadium. Even after so many years in the circuit, Bolt has exhilaratingly remained immune to doubt. It adds to his charisma and magnetism. He is the shining light of a sport that has been plagued by the doping endemic.

But Bolt is not only athletics’ hero. He is the ‘Muhammad Ali’ of the 21st century. Of course, Ali was a lot more than his genius in the boxing ring. In an unjust society, he had been the face and voice of black Americans fighting for social justice and racial equality. Modern society thankfully and heartwarmingly offers little scope for Ali-like off-the-field activism. Perhaps Bolt’s biggest achievement is that, from Beijing to Rio via London, he has stayed true and honest to his sport, while winning 18 out of the 19 races (he was disqualified in one for false start) in the Olympics and other international championships. He has turned himself into a role model in a sport that is prone to misdemeanour and major wrongdoing. He clocked 9.69 seconds, 9.63 seconds and 9.81 seconds in three Olympics 100 m finals, respectively, without taking banned substances. At 9.58 seconds, he set the 100 m world record at the 2009 World Track and Field Championships in Berlin without resorting to cheating. He never tried to hide behind his words or revelled in hypocrisy. He promptly supported Russia’s Olympic ban saying, “Rules are rules and doping violations in track and field are getting really bad, so thumbs up…”  Bolt will hang up his running boots after the World Athletics in London next year.

Athletics, and the sporting world to be precise, will face an impossible challenge of replacing
the irreplaceable. What a pity that athletics was unmindful of the well-being of its biggest star at Rio. Setting the men’s 100 m semi-final and final only 70 minutes apart was ridiculous. It slowed Bolt’s winning time. “I don’t know who decided that,” he said. “It was really stupid. So that’s why the race was slow. There’s no way you can run and go back around and run fast times again. It’s the first time I’ve had to jog to the warm-up area to get ready for the final.” Silver medalist Gatlin agreed.

Before that, however, the 29-year-old king of track spoke passionately about Manchester United when Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet asked him about Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Premier League debut. “It’s brilliant. I was happy when I got the news that he would sign for us.” You don’t expect a sprinter to start off his press conference with football after achieving an Olympics 100 m treble. But this man has always been refreshingly different—a little arrogant and cocky, which makes him even more charming.
Bolt has been this Olympics’ only box office. Rio 2016 has appallingly failed to woo local fans. Events
are being held before half-empty stadiums. A journalist friend tweeted from the Rio Olympic Arena about how televisions had been beaming Brazilian football league matches live during women’s
vault final. Michael Phelps has 28 Olympic medals in his trophy cabinet. Twenty-three of those are gold medals. The 31-year-old American is a great, great champion in his own right. But he is not a people’s champion. Phelps cannot turn empty venues into theatres of war dance. Bolt is the ‘pied piper’. He does
that with ridiculous ease wherever he goes.

Bolt came to Rio chasing immortality. “Somebody said I can become immortal. Two more medals to go and I can sign off. Immortal,” he had said after his 100 m triumph, adding, “The 200 m will be the sweetest one.” He won the event comfortably—19.78 seconds—at his third consecutive Games. “I’m the greatest,” he proclaimed.

Bolt romped to a golden (Olympics) sunset after securing the ‘treble treble’ following his 4x100m relay triumph. He had embraced greatness early in his career. At Rio, with the Christ The Redeemer statue dominating the skyline, he touched immortality.

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