As befit the king of sprinting and the biggest global star at the Rio Olympics, Usain Bolt of Jamaica prepared theatrically on Sunday night for the 9.81 seconds that it would take to ensure another coronation.
He struck his familiar pose, called To Di World, leaning back, cocking an elbow and pointing his index fingers skyward as if launching an arrow or a bolt of lightning.
He crossed the line first, securing his place as the greatest sprinter of all time. Justin Gatlin of the United States was second in 9.89, and Andre De Grasse of Canada was third in 9.91.
Bolt became the only sprinter, man or woman, to win the 100 three times. He is also favored for a third straight gold medal at 200 meters and as the most vital member of Jamaica’s 4x100-meter relay team.
In victory, Bolt also saved the beleaguered sport of track and field from an extremely awkward moment — handing another gold medal to Gatlin, who served a four-year suspension for doping from 2006 to 2010, after the entire Russian track team had been banned from the Rio Games for state-sponsored use of performance enhancing drugs.
Sunday’s victory carried both a sense of celebration and farewell for Bolt, who will turn 30 Sunday as the Rio Olympics end. He has said repeatedly that these will be his final games.
He plans to retire next year after the world track and field championships in London, with one transcendent career goal remaining: to take his world record of 19.19 seconds at 200 meters below the 19-second barrier.
“His legacy depends on what he does with the rest of his life,” said David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. “The best is, if he goes around, giving clinics, and travels around the world like Muhammad Ali and becomes well known in Africa and Asia and is someone that everybody loves. Or he could just have a good time for the rest of his life.”
When Bolt crossed the line Sunday, it was not with the same astonishment as that night eight years ago at the Beijing Games, when he was new to the public and the 100 and he finished in 9.69 seconds, easing up and celebrating before the tape but still shattering the world record. How fast he could have run that night, we will never know.
Nor did Sunday’s performance match the wonder of the 9.58 that Bolt ran a year later to set the current 100
record at the 2009 world track and field championships in Berlin. As with his victory at the 2012 London Games, winning for Bolt is now more about career achievement and historical standing and dominance at the biggest moments than mere startling speed.
He stacks wins as if they were poker chips. Since he became an otherworldly figure with his performances in 2008, Bolt has won 69 of 74 races. His only truly important defeat came with his elimination on a false start in the 100 at the 2011 world track and field championships in Daegu, South Korea.
Bolt has raced little this season. He has become vulnerable to nagging injuries in his back in recent years that radiate down the muscles of his legs.
He withdrew on July 1, from the final of the 100 at the Jamaican Olympic trials with a slight tear in his left hamstring muscle. But Jamaica’s rules, unlike those of the United States, which require a top-three finish to qualify for the Summer Games, allowed Bolt to be placed on the Olympic team for Rio anyway.
But sprinting is a lot like boxing in the sense that they are individual and elemental sports, one man against another with his legs or his fists. Sleights, real or perceived, become dramatically exaggerated.
Bolt said he was disappointed by the tame, joking remarks of Gatlin and other American sprinters, adding, “I think they have not learned over the years that the more you talk, the more I will want to beat you. It’s one of those things but I’m looking forward to it, should be exciting and they will feel my full wrath as always.”
In the end, the buildup to Sunday’s final turned out to be more playful than antagonistic. Bolt held a news conference featuring samba dancers and a Norwegian journalist who broke into a worshipful rap song, saying he hoped that the Jamaican star would again prevail.
In Saturday’s first-round, Bolt started slowly as has become his habit, reacting to the starting gun slower than all but one other sprinter in his heat. He is 6-feet-5 inches, and it can take his body some time to unfurl, like a flag. He also may have grown somewhat cautious after that false start at the 2011 world championships.
Bolt’s biggest strength is not the first 50 meters but the second 50 meters. His is so tall, his legs so long, that he takes only 40 or 41 strides over
100 meters, where other sprinters might need 43 or 44 or even 46.
He also holds his top-end speed better than others. No one speeds up at the end of a 100-meter race as it appears they do. This is an optical illusion. The winner is not the person shifting into another gear but the one slowing down the least.