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Bolt’s absolute mastery thrilled us but his final race showed us that you can’t outrun time

He reminded everyone that athletics, for all its dwindling moral values, was still a beautiful sport and a simple game.

On Saturday Usain Bolt, the most captivating athlete of our time, sped away for one last time. He smiled, chasing gold and immortality, but with little chest-slapping exuberance. His mission was simple: to crown Jamaica relay champions, trumping the much heralded American team, including the antagonist Justin Gatlin. Last week, the American sprinter had dethroned the Jamaican at the 100 meters final. Were the gods envious of Bolt?

The Jamaican rolled himself upright, with his all-devouring stride and physical exceptionalism, but there was to be no more tour de force in the relay final, bolstered by the Jamaican ‘esprit de vivre’ and camaraderie, united in the undertaking to outrun and outclass the illustrious rivals from the North. The superhero was aging. Those quicksilver feet creaked. His body creaked, all uptight and tense. His goatee grin was a grimace. His hamstring snapped.

Freezing rooms and crazy decisions apart, Bolt was no longer in control of his body and his own sport. Here was a tricenarian and global icon contemplating the limits of his own superlative prowess. Perhaps the celebrations of Team GB [and the BBC], in winning an unprecedented gold medal and world title, lacked decorum. With a wounded Bolt nearby, the British athletes cheered, shouted and danced, and almost shrieked. Bolt, it seemed, was evanescent after all.

For a decade Bolt had outpaced his competitors and his entire sport, but he couldn’t outrun Father Time. No one can, not even Bolt. He went from 9.58 seconds in 2008 to 9.95 last week. He still holds the fastest 100 meters relay leg time, an astounding 8.65 seconds. In London – Bolt was disqualified, a woebegone, last gallop of the fastest man who has ever lived.

At the last Olympic Games he won the triple treble, writing his very own ninth symphony, the speedster no longer fetishizing velocity, but carving out his own niche in sporting history. Perhaps those blessed nights under the gaze of Christ Redeemer and with the raucous cheer of a hunkering Carioca crowd in the stands should have implored the Jamaican to retire, but commercial incentives decided otherwise. His medal and injury in London will be mere footnotes in a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious career.

Bolt's Jamaican team-mate Yohan Blake can't believe the ending. AFP
Bolt's Jamaican team-mate Yohan Blake can't believe the ending. AFP

Bolt transcended his sport. He was a much-needed frontman in athletics, tainted by doping cynicism and strangled by public disinterest. Bolt was the perfect ringmaster and marketing asset, a charismatic 21st-century master of ceremonies. Before or after the race, the Jamaican always found that narrow window for self-expression. He was the great entertainer, his personality confined to, but also cultivated by his small on-track gestures and his ubiquitous ‘To Di World.’ Everyone rooted for him, even when he had scaled Mount Olympus - because of his incredulous speed - and no longer belonged to humanity.

Bolt isn’t Jesse Owens, who defied Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. He is neither Mohammed Ali nor Billie Jean King. The supreme boxer and consummate tennis player became cultural icons, because of their political activism. Ali refused to serve in Vietnam and advocated for black advancement within the civil rights movement. King championed against gay rights and sexual discrimination in schools. He isn’t Pelé either, the first global star of the tele-cultural age, together with Neil Armstrong. Their personalities and performances bound class and culture together.

Bolt is not a cultural icon, but, like Owens, Ali, King and Pelé, he was the ultimate athlete: he reminded everyone that athletics, for all its dwindling moral values, was still a beautiful sport and a simple game. Bolt’s absolute mastery of his sport thrilled us. The ethos of drama in his running exhilarated us. At the pinnacle of his greatness, he bestrode other sporting icons.

And so, the post-Bolt era begins, with athletics entering the vale of normal scale humans again, the likes of Gatlin and Chris Coleman emerging from the netherworld of the sport, long impounded to a subdued underclass of terrestrials. Bolt rehabilitated athletics. His persona and achievements were the ultimate dramatization of a wondrous sport. He is a champion for the ages.

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