“Usain,” the question came, “you spoke a lot about how you wanted to become a legend. But what should we call you now?” Bolt paused, thought on it for a while. “Well,” he said, “someone said at a press conference last year that if I win these three gold medals, I will be immortal. And I kind of liked it. So I’m going to run with that: immortal.”
Bolt may be racing the other athletes, but he is not measuring himself against them. “I am trying to be one of the greatest,” he said, “to be among Ali and Pelé”. As well as Phelps and, oddly, Bob Marley, with whom he now seems to be vying for the title of most famous Jamaican.
No one’s sure of the best measure for Bolt’s brilliance. Half an Ali? Two-thirds of a Marley? One Pelé? Bolt would not say whether he felt he was now more famous than Marley, more successful than Phelps or what it meant to be compared to Pelé and Ali. It seems even his self-confidence has its limits and in these conversations at least, he comes across as very modest. “I’m just waiting to see what the media have to say, all the media, to see if they will put me in that bracket,” he said. And on Phelps: “I could never pick who is the best, we are great in our different fields.”
If Bolt is thinking about his own mortality, it may because at the 2016 Brazil Olympics he, and we, have had the first intimations of it since he made his breakthrough at the Beijing Games in 2008. His winning times in the 100m and 200m are pretty similar to the ones set by other men in 2004 in Athens, where Bolt competed as a kid and before he had redefined the possibilities of his sport.
Bolt has been running the kinds of times his competitors can match. Some of that is circumstance. He spoke about the short turnaround between his semi-finals and final in the 100m last Sunday and Thursday, the night of the 200m, was a little cold and wet. But the big reason, the one he keeps coming back to, is that he feels he is getting on. “I’m getting older, so I don’t recover like I used to,” he said of the 100m. In the 200m he dearly wanted to break his world record of 19.19, but he just could not do it. “When I came around the corner my legs said: ‘Listen, we’re not going any faster,’” Bolt said. “I really wanted to run fast, but my legs decided that they weren’t having it.” Bolt was trying to beat the 2009 version of himself and, like everyone else, he came up short.
The really interesting question, then, is that if Bolt is finally beatable, why didn’t anyone come close to beating him? It may just be because none of them really believed they could. Bolt has a psychological hold over every other sprinter.
All of which explains why Bolt is retiring even though he is still winning, why he is adamant that Brazil will be his last Olympics and that the World Championships in London in 2017 will be his last major competition. Because immortals do not lose and so long as he is undefeated he has, as he says, nothing left to prove.
“I have shown the world that I am the greatest,” he said. “That’s what I came here for and that’s what I’ve done.” Andy Bull August 2016