It has to be extremely deflating to race next to Usain Bolt.
To come out of the tunnel to the audible cheers from your family members and few fans, only to then to watch him come out to raucous applause and stadium-wide cheers. To stand beside him as all the runners are introduced, and see him dance and play to the crowd as everyone else around him tries to focus. It’s not that the pressure doesn’t get to him, but that he enjoys it. He revels in it. You’re trying to concentrate, knowing the gravity of the race before you, and he’s not even bothered.
You already come out knowing you face a near impossible task in beating him, and the man that you’ve prepared and trained years to overcome isn’t even acknowledging you, or pretending that you pose any type of danger to his preordained victory. He knows he’s going to win, and deep down you know he’s going to win as well. You just have to play your part as a bit character in this particular episode of “Usain Bolt embarrasses everyone.”
Nothing made that more clear than the semifinal of the 100 meters. At least in these Olympics.
The talk was that American sprinter Justin Gatlin posed a real threat to Bolt this year. Bolt was coming off an injury-ravaged season where his performances had been below par—his fastest time being 9.88—and Gatlin was the opposite. There was a curiosity on Bolt’s readiness for the race, but not for his opposer. At the age of 34, the once-celebrated, now-admonished sprinter was in rare form. The stars had aligned for him to redeem himself and to crash Bolt’s going-away party by doing the improbable.
Bolt went first and won his heat in 9.86 seconds, his fastest time in 2016. The time alone is impressive, but the manner in which he did it was even more so.
The gun went off and then the first shot was followed quickly by two more shots. Someone had false-started. For a second there was the possibility that the worst had happened, Bolt had been disqualified before for the same crime and it was possible that he had lost his title without having the chance to defend it. But the idea was quickly dispelled as the camera zoomed in towards Andrew Fisher of Bahrain, formerly of Jamaica. Everyone returned to their blocks, and the young man, clad in red, walked beyond them in tears.
“On your mark … ,” Bolt shushed the crowd. Then he did the sign of the cross, kissed his finger and looked up to the sky. “Set.” Then the gun went off again. Bolt was one of the last ones out of the blocks and it looked as if he would have to work to catch up. Six seconds into the race and he was seemingly still going at the same pace that he left in, except he had now gone beyond most of the runners and caught up to Andre De Grasse, who was the leader and to his immediate left.
As he passed the young Canadian, Bolt began grinning widely, looking first to his left, then his right and laughing at his non-competition as he he trotted to the finish line. He even had time to smile for the camera that was just left of center while mid-stride. It was arrogant, insulting, incredible and unbelievable. It felt as if he had purposely started off slow to give the other racers some semblance of a chance, only to breeze right past them without ever leaving second gear. He was toying with them.
Of course he had to laugh at the whole spectacle of it, that these runners were killing themselves to be perfect, yet they couldn’t even come close to his barely trying. It was a laughter shared by many who watched the race, how else can you react to such dominance than to laugh at the absurdity of it?
He laughed at the race and his immediate competitors, and he laughed at the notion that Gatlin could beat him. And as he won that heat, all the chatter about his downfall was seen as the fairy tale that it truly was, and his victory in the final was assured. Especially as Gatlin raced in the next heat and finished with a time of 9.95.
To be fair, Gatlin made him work in the final. The American shot out of the blocks as is typical and built a substantial lead, and unlike the semifinals, Bolt had to put his head down and take it seriously. Gatlin was in front of him at 8 seconds, still Bolt caught him. Still the man who’s never lost the 100m final won again, and he still celebrated as arrogantly as ever, beating his chest as he ran past the finish line and towards the audience. The stadium was erupting and he was enjoying every second of it.
It didn’t matter how weak his hamstring supposedly was, how bad his season had been, how slow he started, how quick Gatlin or anyone else did or how big the lead between him and first place was, Usain Bolt was always going to win the race and nothing could change that.
Few things can compare to the phenomenon of watching Bolt make futile the efforts of the other runners.
It’s like re-watching a horror movie and having to deal with the anxiety of seeing the characters walk right into the villain’s trap. The type of villain that practically walks but still ends up being faster than his fleeing victims. You get this urge to yell at the TV and warn them that he’s right behind them, but they already know this—Gatlin peeked over his shoulder and searched for Bolt as his lead dwindled, he was afraid. They share your fear and they also share your hopelessness, because they know how it ultimately ends.
But Bolt isn’t a villain.
Nothing about him is mean or even truly arrogant. He smiles for pictures with fans, he leaves his victory interviews to congratulate other runners that he’s a fan of—like he did for Wayde van Niekerk, who broke the 400m record. He praises his competitors and hugs the young ones. His showmanship isn’t meant to degrade others, just to illustrate how confident in his abilities he is and to make the event worthwhile to the fans. He’s in love with himself in the best way possible. He doesn’t have time to play his opponents down, he’s far too busy celebrating himself.
Even the laughter mid-race felt as if he was in awe of what he can do, even after all these years, more than anything else.
Which in turn is what’s so deflating about running against him. He’s not concerned about you. The whole event is a celebration to and for him, by him. It’s his race, his gold medal and his records. You, or whatever threat everyone thinks you pose, barely exist there. It’s his world, you’re just given the honor to share it with him and to finish behind him in those few seconds.
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