A Bolt of lightning struck again in the most anticipated race of these Summer Games Sunday night as Usain Bolt won the 100-meter dash for the third Olympics in a row.
“It was brilliant,” Bolt told reporters after the race. “I didn’t go so fast but I’m so happy I won. I told you guys I was going to do it.”
Not going fast is a matter of perspective. Bolt ran the race in 9.81 seconds, well off his world record of 9.58 but still good enough to make him the first man ever to win the 100 meters three different times at the Olympics.
Bolt’s victory was greeted by monstrous cheers, both in Rio and around the world. Bolt is one of the planet’s most popular athletes, and his greatest nemesis in the 100 has been twice suspended for doping. That would be American Justin Gatlin, who finished second Sunday and drew some catcalls from the crowd at Olympic Stadium when he was introduced.
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“That’s the first time I’ve gone into a stadium and they’ve started to boo (Gatlin),” Bolt said. “It surprised me.”
While it wasn’t actually “Good vs. Evil” – that’s too simplistic a narrative – it was portrayed that way in many quarters. And like many who have long been enamored with the way Bolt combines marvelous athleticism with dazzling entertainment, I was happy to see the Jamaican win. That’s not a slap at Gatlin so much as it is an endorsement of Bolt.
Like Michael Phelps and Simone Biles, Bolt is a magnetic performer. Like most sporting events, the Olympics are star-driven and fortunate to have him.
Bolt’s victory celebrations go on forever, just like a good party should. Perhaps most importantly, it is almost impossible to watch him perform without smiling. Bolt simply makes the world feel better when he runs.
This was only Part One for Bolt in these Olympics. He is keen to complete a “triple-triple” – winning all three events in which he is entered, just as he did in 2008 and 2012. His other two events – the 200 meters and the 4x100 relay – come later this week.
“Two more medals to go,” Bolt said, “and I can sign off. Immortal.”
Bolt plans for these to be his last Olympics, but he doesn’t plan to retire until after the 2017 world championships.
Millions of Bolt’s fans held their breath as he got off to a relatively slow start in the 100 and Gatlin took the early lead. But the 6-foot-5 sprinter made up just enough ground with his famous long strides in the final quarter of the race to clearly finish first.
Gatlin took silver in 9.89. Canada’s Andre de Grasse was third in 9.91.
There was some concern because Bolt missed Jamaica’s Olympic Trials last month because of a sore hamstring (Jamaica has different rules than the U.S. as far as Olympic teams go and put Bolt on its team anyway).
Bolt has now won the “World’s Fastest Man” unofficial title at the Olympics three different times in his 20s. His longevity is as impressive as his stride.
Gatlin, 34, also has had some serious longevity in track – albeit with a multi-year interruption. Gatlin won the 100 meters at the Olympics in 2004.
In 2006, Gatlin was caught doping with excessive testosterone in his system. That resulted in a four-year ban that some thought should have been for the rest of his life, considering how hard it has been for track to cleanse its sport of drug cheats. But Gatlin has tested cleanly since he came back to the sport, and he became the oldest man to medal in the 100 Sunday.
“At the age of 34, to race these young guys and still make the podium feels so good,” he said.
Gatlin, who once trained in Raleigh, will tell anyone who asks now that he served his time and that he also believes in the drug-testing system.
But some athletes think he shouldn’t be on the U.S. team. American swimmer Lilly King made headlines for her icy showdown last week with convicted Russian drug cheat Yulia Efimova, who like Gatlin had to sit out of her sport because of a doping offense but who also has served her penalty and has since returned.
When asked in a news conference whether Gatlin should be on the U.S. Olympic team, King replied: “Do I think people who have been caught doping should be on the team? They shouldn’t. It is unfortunate we have to see that.”
Bolt brings no such baggage to his races. He is effervescent and joyous, determined to bring the fans along with him for the ride.
On Sunday, he did it again. And just about everybody smiled.