He Was Bolt For Speed
“Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.”
--To An Athlete Dying Young, A.E. Houseman
Usain Bolt did not die on Saturday on London. It just felt like it. The greatest sprinter the world has even seen finished a straining third in his final race, the 100-metre final of the 2017 World Track & Field Championships. Two other guys whom history will forget made sure his swan song ended on a minor key.
And that smarts.
It was supposed to be different. If Bolt was to lose, at least, it was to have been Canadian André DeGrasse who ushered him out. But the Canadian tore his hamstring and didn’t even race in London. Instead a reformed (?) drug cheat, Justin Gatlin, sent him into retirement. Ick.
It will not feel to Bolt that he has died. Knowing Bolt as we do, it’ll burn for a while. However, his stunning record of gold medals, world championships and media moments will soon comfort him like a balm in the days ahead. And he can count the money we hope he saved from the hundreds of millions he’s raked in. (Who knows, he may, in 18 months, change his mind and say he’s coming back for the 2020 Summer Olympics.)
He’ll always be the valedictorian in a very exclusive club, the world’s fastest man. There are 25 in recorded modern history. And Bolt is the chairman of the board, that includes Canada’s Donovan Bailey. (And with better help, Ben Johnson.) Despite the denouement in London, he will not be one of those “runners whom renown outran”.
The temptation to keep it all going is great. In one sense he’s a beneficiary of all the money in sports these days. In the simon-pure amateur age, a runner could only delay his or her eventual transition to the rest of their lives for only so long. You had one, maybe two Olympics. You lived in a shed or hoped that you could balance a life and a job. It was a spartan existence.
Spartan is not a description of the life Bolt’s lived since becoming a world champion in his teens. Longevity brought him phenomenal riches. As we can see watching the Track & Field Championships, there are plenty of 30-somethings still pursuing their careers, winning gold medals and cashing huge cheques. If Bolt was of a mind to, he could go for another five or six years. The man who beat him in London, Gatlin, is a spry 35 years old— and he missed four years to a drug suspension.
But what of the fans who watched in awe as he bragged about it and then backed it up with his posing and mugging, his sly Jamaican humor? It’s hard to think of an athlete in any sport who’s left a larger gap behind. Sure, we haven’t seen the like of Tiger Woods since he wore his honours out. But there has been a gang of prodigious wannabes such as Dustin Johnston and Jordan Spieth who’ve eased the loss.
When Roger Federer finally decides to stop embarrassing his juniors, he’ll be followed at the top of the tennis world by the prodigious Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal.
Bolt stands alone. He defines great in every sense of the word. Not greatness as Rod Black describes it (two good games and strong first half). But the unquestioned immortality of someone like Bolt who towers over the sport and makes the Olympics relevant. Gold medal winners come and go, but the IOC knows what Bolt did for their bottom line.
And fans know what his electrifying performances did for them, too. There is something intangible about Bolt or Serena Williams or Federer that is not defined by a network TV promo. You cannot BS fans about it. Like a Supreme Court justice once said about pornography, fans know it when they see it.
In the age of spin we knew. We didn’t have to be told. And despite a third in London, Bolt taught us to trust our own eyes and enjoy the show for what it was. Something we’ll still be talking about in 20 years.
And that is worth something. As A. E. Houseman knew way back in 1896.
“Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grow
It withers quicker than the rose.”
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. He’s also a regular contributor three-times-a-week to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. His website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com)