IAAF World Championships 2017

Athletics: Stage set for one final Bolt

Jamaica's Usain Bolt celebrating after winning the men's 200m final during the London 2012 Olympic Games in London on Aug 9, 2012.
Jamaica's Usain Bolt celebrating after winning the men's 200m final during the London 2012 Olympic Games in London on Aug 9, 2012.PHOTO: AFP

In lead-up to final race, fear of failure is strong as ever for Jamaican eyeing golden farewell

LONDON • There are so many images to cling to that the farewell of the world's greatest sprinter tonight will take days rather than seconds.

Since his emergence in Beijing in 2008, Usain Bolt has been the single most appealing figure in sport, the only athlete who can stand comparison with Muhammad Ali in terms of showmanship and performance.

The Jamaican has never coveted a pedestal outside sport. He deflects any questions about world affairs, politics or social issues with the same easy grace that has characterised his domination of the track.

He has never been particularly comfortable with his role as the guardian of athletics. He has stated that he is clean, has condemned those who are not, including his own fellow Jamaicans, but has rarely been drawn into taking the moral high ground.

His anger at Justin Gatlin before the world championships in Beijing was triggered not by the American's two suspensions for doping, but by the accusation that Bolt had pulled out of the Jamaican trials earlier in the year with a fake injury.

Infringing doping rules is one thing; questioning Bolt's professionalism is a different matter altogether. In a rare rant, he did drop into hyperbole worthy of Ali: "Me, Usain Bolt, who has proved year in, year out, that I am the greatest."

Either way, he whipped the tainted Gatlin on the track in Beijing and last year in Rio.

At his recent farewell meeting in Kingston, on the track on which he had first competed as a 15-year-old schoolboy, Bolt ran 100m in 10.03 seconds but was much swifter in running a mile from suggestions he may turn to politics after athletics.

Lauded by the leaders of the Jamaican government and the opposition, he accepted the compliments and shrugged them off at roughly the same moment.

ST FILE PHOTO STRAITS TIMES GRAPHICS

"May the vibe in the stadium bring a world of justice and love," exhorted the local minister in a prayer to launch the Salute to a Legend tribute. But one of Bolt's great strengths as an athlete and a performer is his authenticity; he has already saved athletics, saving the world can be left for another day.

At the heart of Bolt's complex psyche lies the spirit of the old Corinthian, the supremely gifted athlete who could beat his rivals not through hard work but sheer talent.

The conflict, outlined vividly in the I Am Bolt documentary broadcast on the BBC, is with another more primeval instinct: fear.

"Am I still fast?" is a question that Bolt asks himself at the start of every season, the question that has driven him through the brutal training regimen devised by his long-time coach, Glen Mills, and through the constant battle against his back and hamstrings.

Yet injury has not ruled Bolt out of any world championships or Olympic Games in nearly a decade, which is a remarkable testimony to the work of the team around him and to Bolt's own mental strength.

He has run with pain for longer than he can remember and, in London tonight (this morning, Singapore time), Jamaica's finest will once again defy the odds set not by his rivals but by his own physique.

Bolt ran his first sub-10sec 100m of the year in Monaco a few weeks ago, the one and only sign that his form is returning in time for London, where he will be seeking to end his matchless career with a seventh global 100m title.

He has become a master of running himself into form through the early rounds of a major championships, but this one could be very tight.

The good news is that none of his rivals has been running much quicker.

His chief rival Andre de Grasse's withdrawal through injury has only boosted his chances.

The onus is on an absolute beginner, Christian Coleman, and two old world title-winning foes, Gatlin and Yohan Blake, to ruin his farewell.

The 21-year-old US college student Coleman is comfortably the fastest in the world this year at 9.82 seconds, but he will know, like Asafa Powell and Gatlin before him, that Bolt has always been the big man for the big occasion.

The back and the legs might have gone but the fear of defeat is as powerful as ever.

THE TIMES, LONDON, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2017, with the headline 'Stage set for one final Bolt'. Print Edition | Subscribe