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Usain Bolt - the advertisement Athletics desperately needed

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Usain Bolt - the advertisement Athletics desperately needed

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Bastab K Parida


When a sportsman bids goodbye to his revered sport, it is only natural for the fans to revisit the edifice that he built and trace the path he took on his way to achieving sporting greatness. This serves as an attempt to seek a context which might help in defining the true impact of his career.

As Usain Bolt walks into the sunset at the age of 30, after producing the greatest advertisement for the track and field events in the history of the sport and outclassing a host of players on his way to establish himself as the benchmark for generations to come, he left behind a lasting legacy and infinite number of memories that will be replayed time and time again in the future. Not since the days of the legendary Jesse Owens has a player captivated the attention of the media and the masses alike and it will be a while till we see someone come close to the "Lightning" Bolt.

When we talk about a team sport, the success of any professional sportsperson is mostly about the contribution to the team – be it the amount of runs and wickets in cricket, or the number of goals in football – but in an individual sport, success is pretty much judged by the number of titles or medals one has won in his/her career and with the unerring consistency with which he or she has performed over a period of time. Think of Roger Federer, the man who epitomized the brilliance in an individual sport and established himself as the greatest ever to pick up a racquet by winning the most number of Grand Slams than anyone else in the history of men’s tennis history.

It was not just the numbers Bolt had put up but rather the way he was going about his business. Just as Owens had done over seven decades ago in Berlin, the newly constructed Bird's Nest in Beijing stood stunned as the Jamaican not only set up a new World and Olympic record (9.69), he did it in a fashion that left the World gasping for breath. The towering Jamaican started celebrating his win 30 meters before the finish line - an image that will go down in history as one of the most iconic in modern athletics. He followed that up by destroying the lineup in the 200m as well. What followed the next year in the World Championships was total carnage - 0.11 seconds were taken off both the records as Bolt began showing off his true potential. There was the matter of the 4x100m relay as well that was never going to go to anyone else.

But that is not what he should be remembered by. Bolt scores over other individual sportspersons, including Federer, for the way he managed to move clear of the chasing packs and yet being a reminder that running on the court is more about individual stamina and mental preparedness than using performance enhancer to win. The jovial Jamaican entered the stage when the game was completely plagued by a series of high-profile doping scandals, which saw Tim Montgomery and Justin Gatlin stripped of their 100-metre world records, and Marion Jones return three gold medals. 

 © Flikr

Numbers don't lie. The difference between Bolt’s fastest time of 9.58 seconds and the next fastest men, Tyson Gay and Yohan Blake with 9.69 is 0.11 seconds. Even if you extend the search for the next 0.11 seconds and with all men with 9.8 or lower – Justin Gatlin, Asafa Powell, Maurice Greene, Nesta Carter, and Steve Mullings – have all been linked to or caught with performance-enhancing substances at some point in their careers. One would have to go as far as Richard Thompson of Trinidad and Tobago and Christian Coleman of the USA to find the next dope-free athletes.

If you look at the Olympics record, and especially in the 100 meters, apart from Bolt and Donovan Bailey in 1996, one has to go all the way back to Allen Wells in 1980 to find a champion who has never been convicted of doping. 

And, Bolt alone, managed to 19 global championship races - the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay at three Olympics and five World Championships. The two losses before the recently concluded one were because of a false start (100m, 2011 World Championship) and the disqualification of a teammate who tested positive (4x100m relay, 2008 Olympics). 

 © Getty

He went on to achieve an unprecedented "triple-triple" of Olympic sprint golds in Rio, though later he has lost the 4x100m relay gold he won in Beijing as a result of teammate Nesta Carter testing positive in his doping test. But has Bolt become a lesser athlete because of this chink in his record? He had a false start in the 2011 100M race, but does this really matter? Nothing could be further from this statement. If anything it just shows off another side of his personality as he was the first one to return his medal when Carter's wrongdoings were proved.

However, the records aside, rather the way Bolt has managed to stay at the pinnacle of the sport for close to a decade is his greatest legacy. Coming into the sport at a time when the event was on the verge of dying and had lacked the public attention, the Jamaican restored the hope and made the sprinting an exhilarating and transcendental experience and became a popular figure in every nook and cranny of the world. 

And when he was running his final individual race of his career in front of a raucous 56,000 people at the London Stadium last week, everyone was at their top of the voices and wanted the great man to cross the final hurdle on a high. But little did they expect what transpired in front of them. Justin Gatlin finished at 9.92. Christian Coleman at 9.94. And Bolt at 9.95 and had to be content with a Bronze medal for the first time in the history of the championship.

However, sports, indeed like life, thrive on these uncertainties and the imperfect finish to a perfect career will only serve as a tale for romanticists to discuss for generations to come. And, notwithstanding the imperfect final act of this gilded athletic tale, there has been no question about his place among the pantheon of all-time sporting greats.

The Usain Bolt Story is an endearing tale of a driven individual who burst forth as a record-breaking young boy at the 2008 Games and ruled the arena with an iron fist. It is also a captivating tale because in a journey that saw him being the greatest ever in the sport, Bolt the human being has always remained grounded, untouched by fame and adulation, riding on his middle-class Caribbean upbringing. And now as he has left the stage, it's time to acknowledge how big a success story it is for the track and field events that Bolt had graced it, and with the primal joy that he brought to the sport which made him one of the finest sportspersons of the world.

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