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Usain Bolt - the greatest since Ali?
“He’s saved his title, he’s saved his reputation, he may have even saved his sport.” A line so nonchalantly said by Steve Cram in commentary for the BBC, little did he know that line still holds huge significance for sport lovers like me today. This special quote was delivered in the wake of arguably the most extraordinary victory in a 100m race in history. Justin Gatlin talked the talk and was supposed to walk the walk. He had dominated the year of 2015 and was clearly the form man going into the World Championships for that year. But, as so often is the case, discount champions at your peril. The defending champion, Usain Bolt had a stricken year with injuries and was expected to relinquish his title. But, just like Steve Cram said after 9.79 seconds in Beijing, he had delivered yet more evidence why his magic will never leave us.
Since that night in Beijing, he further cemented his legend in the Rio Olympic Games. Winning the coveted double of 100m and 200m for a third consecutive Games was simply unprecedented. To do that despite all the injury concerns with his ailing body over the last few years makes his dominance in the biggest events that much more meaningful. What makes him so special? Is it the physical gifts given by an external force? A towering figure at 1.95 metres, and a lean physique has changed the image of sprinters. What used to be dominated by relatively short and stocky athletes is now being ruled by taller sprinters. Strength and explosiveness is now simply powerless against the huge stride of the Jamaican. He takes 41 strides on average over the 100 metre distance, whereas other mortals take a “paltry” 43 to 50 strides on average. There has also been extensive research into the physical attributes of the fastest man in the world. The discovery of more “fast twitch muscle fibres” is also given as a reason for his outstanding pace and “he has the coordination and quickness of sprinters who are much smaller”. This is all according to a world renowned physicist at Cambridge University. Apart from physical talent, are there other factors which make this champion one of the greatest? As with so many athletes, the mentality is a huge aspect of their success.
“It’s only when the starter says ‘on your marks’ that I focus in on the race,” is what Bolt told the media ahead of his final Olympic Games last year. Aside from that moment and the nine or so seconds, it begs the question, how is his mentality? The outwardly positive personality that he portrays on a regular basis hides the inevitable fire within his belly. The perception is that he always competes with himself since no other athlete can come close to him. But, a recent BBC documentary showed how seriously he takes comments and gestures from his “competitors”. In the Olympic trials of 2012, Yohan Blake shockingly defeated Bolt in both the 100 metres and 200 metres. While that might have been enough to ignite the fire within Bolt, the finger to the lips from Blake gave Bolt more than just fire. Over the next month, he trained tirelessly to make sure he would not have to see that image again. Sure enough, a blistering sprint of 9.63 seconds made sure “the champion became a legend” and he put his own finger to his lips to remind everyone who is the king. Repeating the performance in the 200 metres cemented the iconic status for Bolt. A similar incident occurred in 2016 when Bolt had to miss the Jamaican trials due to a hamstring strain. Ratlin felt that Bolt had been given a “medical pass” to compete at the Olympics. “They haven’t realised that the more they talk, the more I will want to beat you” is what the Jamaican said in the lead up to Rio. Boy, did he beat Gatlin or what! This fire should be appreciated but there is something that has made him transcend his sport. His charisma.
The pre race wave to the crowd. The acting in front of the camera when his name is called out in the stadium. The signature pose at the end of all his wins. All of these aspects of his personality have made him arguably the most likeable athlete in the world over the past decade. Furthermore, at least in my lifetime, he is one of the few athletes who stated his intention early to be one of the greatest. It can come across as arrogance and can easily be a turn off for the general public. But, his spectacular performances have connected him to the public like no other athlete of this generation. He is supported wherever he races, sometimes even against the hometown hero. He has also used his power to try and change the way athletes train. He has been extremely vocal against the topic of doping in athletics, which has unfortunately been rife in recent years. He seems to do all the right things, at every moment of his career so far. Added to that, the sorry state of his injuries have made people pull for him even more. That is why the quote from Cram in Beijing two years ago is held dearly as people truly believe Bolt “saved his sport”.
As all eyes turn to the Olympic Stadium in London, it will be the final time we see Bolt. Rather than be sad about this, enjoy his final appearance and remember how he became the greatest sportsman since Muhammad Ali.