Sporting Life

Light-hearted legend's appeal lies in jest being himself

Usain Bolt is among the planet's favourite citizens because he has artfully married fun with fast. He simplifies sport. He makes running seem a joyous act by bringing us speed with a smile attached. Only he can make us wait an entire year for 9.81 seconds of action and it is enough for us. It is what he timed on Sunday in the Olympic 100m final. Of course he won. Is that even a question?

Most of sport is understandably grim because athletes with faces chiselled from granite are trying to focus their will on the concentrated seconds of a gymnastics vault or a twisting dive. Serious is good, serious is what perfection requires, serious tells us how much it means.

But Bolt is from a rarer tribe, the playful one, a serious competitor of course but who comes cloaked in charm. On Sunday he winked, pointed, shook a mascot's hand, held onto another, wore a cap, interrupted a post-race interview to chase down 400m champion Wayde van Niekerk to hug him and in between confirmed that no one on the planet can out-race him.

Bolt brings determination and carries resolve, he just does it with a sly glint in the eye. He is so cool that if Isaac Newton were still hanging around he might have considered a new law of motion. He climbs easily onto podiums but doesn't really put himself on pedestals. Sport with him looks more life than death.

Bolt is not without vanity but wears it as lightly as we like: He could compare himself to Zeus and we'd laugh and say, oh that Bolt. Now he wants to race the 400m champion over 300m and few will bet against him. This is Bolt, he jests and then he accelerates into history as he did on Sunday night.

In the history of the Olympics, in individual running events, from the 100m to 400m to 1,500m to the marathon, no one has won three gold medals consecutively in a single event. Now only he has. Through eight years of Olympic invincibility has come athletic immortality.

Bolt brings determination and carries resolve, he just does it with a sly glint in the eye. He is so cool that if Isaac Newton were still hanging around he might have considered a new law of motion. He climbs easily onto podiums but doesn't really put himself on pedestals.

Superstars can be gelled, manufactured, distant heroes but Bolt is his own man: he wears gold shoes but owns a common touch. Timothee Yap, Singapore's 100m candidate, ran alongside Bolt in the heats, chatted with him and has a picture with him that's going straight on his wall. "Motivation," he explains.

On Sunday, Yap went to the warm-up track to watch Bolt and learn and this is what transpired: "Before the race I gave him two thumbs up and said 'you'll win'. Then he pointed at me and winked."

It is this vitality we warm to and Bolt gets it. "I'm always going to bring my craziness to the sport," he said later, "and I think the crowd loves the energy. Hopefully these younger athletes will understand that sport is looking for people who are full of energy. That's what gets (fans) going."

What gets fans going is Bolt in the arena. It is why hours before the 100m final in Rio there was a countdown clock on the big screen already ticking down the seconds to the big race. It was as if the 400m runners, high jumpers, triple jumpers, 1,500m runners who were competing on the same day just had to understand: This is the Usain Bolt Show. Everyone else is a supporting act. Justin Gatlin, Andre de Grasse and Yohan Blake included.

Bolt is fun also because he is fast when he needs to be fast. He sees a big moment and he grabs it in a headlock; he sees a big crowd and his inner Ferrari fires up. On Sunday night he ran slower than he has in two previous Olympic finals and three world championship finals, and still he won.

In the semi-finals, his 9.86 was a season's best. In the finals, his 9.81 seconds was even faster. He was not faster than ever before but just as fast as he needed to be. If Gatlin was initially ahead, then by the 50m mark Bolt just knew: "Awright, I'm going to catch him." Once he did, the race was over: After all, in almost all nations overtaking him is illegal.

Bolt is a man apart and that's all he aspires to be. To separate himself on the track and in history. He's the runner who never wants to be caught. His place lies with Ali, Jordan, Pele and usually he talks about this with exuberance but on this night he was more subdued. Please understand, he'll be 30 in less than a week, he might be tired.

On Sunday night, the race was only part of the show. Bolt won his seventh Olympic gold, circled a stadium, blew kisses and made his pose. Arm extended, leaning back, a star pointing to the sky. He grinned, we grinned. We'd seen the substance, now came the style. He and his gold shoes arrived separately at the mixed zone. From a distance of two feet I examined them. There were no folded wings inside.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2016, with the headline 'Light-hearted legend's appeal lies in jest being himself'. Print Edition | Subscribe