RIO DE JANEIRO - Usain Bolt has shoes you wish you could wear. Just once. Just to know what flight feels like. Just to check if they have folded wings inside. A volunteer actually walks through the maze that is the media mixed zone after the 100m final on Sunday with a pair of large, golden spikes. Yes, they are his, she says. The fast guy's. The Jamaican with the smile. The man whom Isaac Newton should have watched. Might have compelled him to write another law of motion.
Usain Bolt breaks records as if he doesn't see them. 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.
Usain Bolt can make organisers do very amusing stuff. Hours before the 100m final in Rio there's a countdown clock on the big screen already ticking down the seconds to the big race. It's as if the 400m runners, high jumpers, triple jumpers, 1,500m runners who are competing on the same day must understand: This is the Usain Bolt Show. You are allowed only to be a supporting act.
Usain Bolt elicits emotional reactions from people in a way other athletes will never manage. If you discount Brazilians, no one in Rio gets the cheer and chant he does. We're not surprised for he's long been one of the favourite citizens of this planet. Not merely because he is clean and has rescued track but because he has married the two things we like: He is fast and fun. Speed with a smile. Skill with a swagger. He could compare himself to Zeus and we'd laugh and say, oh that Bolt.
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 gymnastic vault. Serious is fine, serious tells us how much it means. Bolt is from a rarer tribe, the playful one, who on Sunday winked, pointed, swayed, shook a mascot's hand, held onto another, wore a cap, and in between confirmed he is the fastest man alive. He's cool. He climbs easily onto podiums but doesn't really put himself on pedestals. He interrupts a post-race interview to chase down 400m champion Wayde van Niekerk just to hug him. Sport with him looks more life than death.
Superstars can be gelled, manufactured, distant heroes but Bolt has a bearable vanity: He wears gold shoes but has a common touch. Timothee Yap, for instance, will swear to that in any court. 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," is his one-word explanation. 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's this vitality, this spiritedness, 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 sports is looking for people who are full of energy. That's what gets (fans) going. They want to be part of the competition, not so much just watching it."
Usain Bolt seizes every racing day as if "carpe diem" was a competitive phrase invented just for him. On Sunday night (Monday morning 9.25am, Singapore time), he ran slower than he ever has in two previous Olympic finals and three world championship finals, and still he won. Evidently overtaking him is outlawed on this planet.
It's not about form, or the past, "it's about the moment" says Gatlin, and Bolt grabs the moment always in a headlock. In the semi-finals, his 9.86 seconds 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, having risen to his full stature, Bolt just knew: "Awright, I'm going to catch him". That he was, admittedly, fuelled on Asian food this week was clearly a factor.
This is a man apart and that's all he wants to be. To separate himself on the track and also in history. He's the runner who never wants to be caught, who might try the 400m just for fun one day, whose place lies with Ali, Jordan, Maradona, Schumacher. 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.
Usain Bolt may be the fastest man in the world but is the slowest to arrive at the mixed zone. No one complains. He's won his seventh Olympic gold and he has a stadium to circle, kisses to blow, crowds to entertain. And he's busy making that pose we know, where he leans back, with arm extended, pointing to the sky. Perhaps to the stars of which he is one.