It was almost like he missed a step at the start. Did he? The noise of 56,000 people in there at London Stadium – all willing him on at the top of their voices – was it too much? Is it possible that Usain Bolt was feeling the pressure of expectations? Of the 56,000 people trackside and another, what, million, a few million, watching on TV, on the internet? Of himself? Or was the greatest athlete – bar none – of our times just not good enough on the night? All of the above?
On that track, Justin Gatlin finished at 9.92. Christian Coleman, at 9.94, also finished ahead of Bolt, and must have had a hard time believing it. And the man – he did 9.95. A sort of number he last did in the mid-2000s, when he was shifting focus from the 200m to the 100m, before recent times. It all went wrong at the start, didn’t it? Apparently, he was the fastest runner in the pack, the slow reaction time setting him back. By my naked-eye estimate, he was second last off the blocks. Oh, if only …
“I put a little pressure on myself because I knew if I didn’t get my start and get into the race early, I might be in trouble. I got behind a little too much. I was behind and thought, ‘I have to work to get back in the race as quickly as possible’. In the end, it wasn’t enough.”
If only … But Bolt’s 9.95 is his 99.94. Gatlin and Coleman, his Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick, or Danny Williams and Kevin McBride. Going by the numbers, it was not the perfect finish to an extraordinary career.
Unlike, say, Sachin Tendulkar’s? He had the hundredth hundred and the two-hundredth Test and, before that, the World Cup trophy. Those are great facts and figures. He wouldn’t have been a lesser cricketer had he not got himself those things, but he was desperate for them. He overstayed the welcome to get them. Even his biggest fans, in a fleeting moment of objectivity, will agree that Test No. 200 came a few months, even years, too late. Not the perfect finish, perhaps?
Kapil Dev too was out trying to swing the ball in India’s colours well after his sell-by date. For that wicket, the one that made him No. 1. By the end, it didn’t look like he could get the ball across from his end to the other. He managed, only just.
Now, Bolt, he has played it just right. Even though he hasn’t yet touched 31 – Gatlin is 35 – he just knew that he was done. [I hope he doesn’t make a comeback.] The body wasn’t up to it anymore, and he accepted it.
“I’ve proved to the world I’m one of the greatest athletes. I don’t think this changes anything. I’ve done my part as an athlete, to uplift the sport and show it’s getting better.”
This was the man who once said he wanted to be counted among the greats – Pele and Ali – and he is. But a fan must wonder that he left the mark at 9.58. Really, has he ever run a race where he has given it absolutely everything? I don’t think so. The only time I was fortunate enough to watch him ‘live’, he did it at 9.69. The 2008 Beijing Olympics. Then, he showboated the last ten-odd metres, slowed down, and still left daylight – many times over – between himself and Richard Thompson, the No. 2. They said he could have done it in 9.52 if he hadn’t gone the grandstand way.
Someday, someone will do 9.52. Even bring it under 9.50 perhaps. Someday, someone will top Roger Federer’s record, which is still in the making, as is Serena Williams’s, one hopes.
There will be someone who goes at above 5.06 and pushes Yelena Isinbayeva to second place. Like Renaud Lavillenie did to Sergey Bubka’s 6.14 with 6.16 in 2014. One day, someone will stick her neck out and say, you know, this boy is better than Ali – yes, even that might happen.
One wonders if, given the current climate in cricket, it will be possible for anyone to be around for 200 Test matches. Or 24 years at the top, for that matter. And then score 15,921 Test runs, and 51 centuries. Can anyone actually take 800 Test wickets then? Can anyone go past 99.94 (number of Tests and all that)? Will there ever be another Garry Sobers? Or Shane Warne? Maybe, maybe, maybe …
In sport, there will be good days and bad days. The better women and men will have more good ones than bad, and the great ones among them will mostly have very good days. That’s the image fans of the game want to remember. When the star athlete floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.
Bolt has played it so well, not everyone can – accept defeat, and waning ability, and walk away gracefully, without a slur or a stomp. Rahul Dravid did that. And VVS Laxman. MS Dhoni has done that to an extent already. Sunil Gavaskar did too, all those years ago.
That said, Bolt is a man who defined the era he strove in. More than that, actually, he lifted track athletics from its dope-stained decay, rescued it almost.
And now, with Virat Kohli saying, “If you ever want to play cricket you know where to find me” – and Bolt being an avowed cricket fan – one wonders if there’s a bit of post-retirement flutter around the corner. It sure would fill up a stadium or two around the Caribbean and beyond. It should be a good spot of fun, one that does not dilute the image and memories of the Lightning Bolt that fans want to remember.