Bolt saved his sport — and kept the Olympics relevant

Eddie Pells
Associated Press
FILE - In this Aug. 18, 2016 file photo, Usain Bolt from Jamaica celebrates winning the gold medal in the men's 200-meter final during the athletics competitions of the 2016 Summer Olympics at the Olympic stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

RIO DE JANEIRO — It began in a rain-drenched 5,000-seat stadium on an island between Manhattan and Queens. Some Jamaican kid with the improbably awesome name of “Bolt” was in the Big Apple, not so much to announce his presence to the world, but to figure out who he was.

We clambered into a van and headed over to Ichan Stadium. The headliner that night: American sprinter Tyson Gay.

Or so we thought.

Wearing a white top and black shoes — nothing flashy — Usain Bolt took off out of lane 4 for the men’s 100 meters. He busted through the blue tape in 9.72 seconds. That was the new world record.

The Beijing Olympics were still two months away, and Bolt was still wondering which race he would add to his specialty, the 200 meters. His coach had urged him to do the 400. At 6-foot-5, the thought went, Bolt was simply too awkward to burst from the starting blocks and build enough speed to win the shortest sprint.

Everybody thought wrong.

“I wasn’t really looking for a world record,” Bolt said that night, “but it was there for the taking.”

He took it again in Beijing. Then took it in the 200. Then again in the 4×100 relay. He closed out his Olympic career in style Friday night, making it 9 for 9 in the Olympic sprints.

I watched that first race in New York, along with all 325 seconds he spent sprinting in the cumulative 23 races he’s run at the Olympics — in Beijing, London and, now, Rio de Janeiro.

I watched track and field become fun again.

Even at its best, the sprint game had always been a motley collection of unsmiling, sneering faces with loads of trouble seemingly lingering around every curve.

Bolt wadded up that stereotype. Yes, sprinting is serious and very difficult work, he showed us. But this stuff can also be eminently watchable. Not just the reggae-filled, selfie-taking, To-The-World-posing after-parties, which Bolt has turned into performance art.

The races themselves, too.

Time after time, I saw him burst out of those blocks in the 100 and wondered, how’s he going to pull this off? Most of the time, he had been losing at the halfway point. By the end, he was almost always far in front.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing in Beijing, sitting 10 rows up from the finish line, when he hotdogged down the final eight steps of his 100, casting his arms to his side, then thumping his chest, then breaking his own world record nonetheless.

Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee at the time, had the temerity to criticize Bolt’s joy, saying “that’s not the way we perceive a champion.”

As tone deaf and clueless as it sounded then, it makes even less sense today.

Bolt has saved his sport and, in turn, kept the Olympics relevant — not such a small deal in the wake of what’s happened at these games, with their constant alerts about violence, disorganization and Ryan Lochte.

Without Bolt, the final week of the last three Olympics would have been an endless loop of beach volleyball and hoops and wishing Michael Phelps or America’s latest gold-medal gymnast competed in those events, too. Track, supposedly the glue that brings the whole thing together, would be nothing more than a collection of pole vaulters, distance runners and others who’s every accomplishment immediately falls under the lens of the ever-present doping microscope: Is anything you see in this stadium really to be believed?

Yes, we should, and have, asked those questions of Bolt, too. Jamaica’s anti-doping program is flawed. Who knows what’s really going on there?

But Bolt has insisted he is clean. He has done it in a serious tone. He has also insisted, at different times, that yams, Chicken McNuggets, his Aunt Lilly’s jerk pork and, yes, the nutrients from his pints of Guinness have powered him to the top.

He has come close, a few times, to being knocked off, and I’ve seen Bolt at his most vulnerable.

Last year, back in Beijing for the world championships, he was injured and nowhere near his best.

Justin Gatlin should have beaten him in the 100 but started leaning into the finish line too soon and Bolt persevered by one-hundredth of one second.

In doing so, Bolt checked the box that anyone seeking to be called “The Greatest” must check at least once: Gritting one out when you’re not at your best.

Feeling he was the faster man, Gatlin said he had something in store for Bolt in the 200, a few nights later.

“You don’t talk about my 200 meters like that,” Bolt said. It was the most-telling sentence I’ve ever heard him speak.

He spanked Gatlin — powering his long legs through a curve that was built for him, then going into hyperdrive down the straightway in a race he calls his baby.

Bolt got upended by a Segway during the celebration. He popped right up. He delivers great theatre even when he doesn’t mean to.

In 2012, I saw him in Kingston, dealing with leg injuries and the remnants of an out-of-form preseason at Jamaica’s version of Olympic trials.

Yohan Blake beat him not once, but twice, that week.

“This, ladies and gentlemen, is the man to beat at the London Olympics,” I wrote after the second win, speaking of Blake.

Those are 13 words I wish I could have back.

In Rio, as Friday night morphed into Saturday morning, I was in the press tribune, putting a bow on what Bolt insists will be his last run at the Olympics.

From the darkened field below, the shouts of “Usain Bolt, Usain Bolt” started ringing out.

I squinted, saw a tall man in yellow shirt and shorts hoisting a javelin, with a few dozen workers and cameramen surrounding him.

The man took a few long steps, reared back and let the javelin fly. It pierced the grass, not all that far downfield, but a pretty nice throw nonetheless.

Could that really have been The World’s Fastest Man — all wrung out, out of words, too tired to entertain anymore — throwing the javelin down there at 2 in the morning for fun?

It was.

I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Then again, who ever could?

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