Monday 26 September 2016

Paul Hayward: 'Immortal' Bolt creates a magic like no other

Paul Hayward

Published 16/08/2016 | 02:30

Bolt wins his third consecutive summer Olympics 100M Gold. Photo: Reuters
Bolt wins his third consecutive summer Olympics 100M Gold. Photo: Reuters

The good news is that Usain Bolt will bow out in London at next year's World Athletics Championships: an emotional treat for British spectators.

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The bad news is that Usain Bolt will bow out.

Usain Bolt strikes his signature pose. Photo: Getty
Usain Bolt strikes his signature pose. Photo: Getty

With every slow-starting, fast-ending win, track and field's dependence on the world's most recognisable athlete becomes more painfully apparent. Here in Brazil, Bolt's magnetism even extends to rousing large parts of Rio from their indifference to the Games.

Read more: Lightning Bolt: Brilliant Usain makes history in Rio with third successive 100 metres gold medal

Political resentments were suspended when Bolt stepped out for the 100m and flew home first again. The swooning was repaid. The pleasure is brief - 9.81 seconds this time - but the drama intense. Packed into that one-breath burst is a world of interest: in Bolt the man, Bolt the running machine, and in athletics as Bolt-dependent sport.

According to Forbes, Bolt earns 10 times as much from athletics as Mo Farah, GB's double Olympic 10,000m champion now aiming to complete a double double in this week's 5,000m.

Bolt's annual $32.5m (¤29m) pushes him into the platinum club of earners. But of more interest than track and field's financial importance to Bolt is Bolt's importance to track and field, a sport that has exhausted public patience on issues of corruption and doping.

This is the paradox of the athletics in Rio. This is a sport where senior (now deposed) officials demanded bribes to cover up positive dope tests; where the history of the blue riband event, the 100m, is riddled with drug cheats; where an entire country (Russia) has been thrown out of the Games for reprising the East German state doping programme of the 1970s.

In the middle of all this disgrace and doubt stands a glowing figure who brings a distinctly Jamaican flavour: a global idol from a non-privileged background whose reach extends far beyond the rich countries that provide most of his money, as Muhammad Ali's did.

In victory on Sunday night, Bolt tweeted: "Jamaica Stand Up! This for you my people."

This is a kind of magic no other sport can summon. At the Rio Olympic Stadium you could feel him cast his spell, with a grin, a wave, a jiggle on the start line, a spread of his arms.

Part of Bolt's appeal is that he seems immune to doubt, refuses to take it too seriously (or so his start-line cabaret suggests) and wants to connect with those who are there to love him. In any city he can forge an instant bond largely by being himself.

And athletics reaps the benefit. "With Bolt, we know that we will easily fill the Stade de France," Laurent Boquillet, the Paris Diamond League event director, told Forbes, explaining his $300,000 appearance fee in 2013.

In Rio, Bolt is able to transform a generally half-empty athletics stadium into a house of passion. As with Tiger Woods in his prime, all other athletes in the field feed off that surge.

The only losers are the other 100m contestants, who are stuck in a looping script of late Bolt surges and lightning bolt trackside celebrations.

Jessica Ennis-Hill was among those who joined that cavorting after Bolt's 100m win on Sunday night.

So everyone wins, except for Justin Gatlin and the rest of the 100m's chasing pack - the extras in his movie.

All this will end within a year, but not before Bolt has contested the 200m and 4x100m relay here, and the worlds in London, which will be next summer's hottest ticket.

Immortal

"Somebody said if I win these three gold medals I would be immortal and I kind of liked it," Bolt said after the 100m. "So I'm going to run with that one."

No matter that this was the least-fast (a better term than 'slowest', in this context) of his three Olympic 100m wins. At 29, he is starting to show the first signs of struggle.

Not glaringly, but enough to make us think 30 will be a good age to go. Running a sub-19-second 200m - a target here - is probably beyond him. A triple triple is not.

"I came here to win three gold medals, I came here to prove myself as one of the greats," he said. "If by any chance it doesn't happen, I'm going to feel sad because I didn't do what I wanted to accomplish.

"I wanted to set myself apart from everybody else and this is the Olympics, I have to do it."

Bolt has won 18 of the 19 championship races he has contested since the 2008 Beijing Games. In the 19th, he was disqualified for a false start.

But how much does athletics itself appreciate its megastar?

Not enough, it seems. Compressing the 100m semi-finals and final so that they were only 1hr 10min apart annoyed him and probably slowed the winning time. He called it "stupid".

They clearly don't know how lucky they are. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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