RIO DE JANEIRO – Five hours before the biggest race of the Rio Games, a horn at Olympic Stadium sounded and a clock began ticking backward. On the scoreboard at both ends read a message in all capital letters: COUNTDOWN TO THE EVENT.
Usain Bolt races aren’t races. They are events, shows, entertainment distilled to its essence, and the 47,000 people here and billion or so worldwide who watched Sunday night were not disappointed. The fastest man ever isn’t ready to give up his title as the fastest man in the world quite yet.
Hamstring injury healed, legs churning like a tremendous machine, Bolt blistered past the fastest field in history and became the first person to capture 100-meter-dash gold medals in three straight Olympics. Though his 9.81-second time fell short of his record 9.58 set seven years ago, Bolt – his classic 6-foot-5 silhouette same as ever, only with his head shaved – still blitzed by the competition in a personal season best. American Justin Gatlin finished .08 seconds behind for silver and Canada’s Andre de Grasse .1 seconds back of Bolt for bronze.
“Somebody said I can become immortal,” Bolt said. “Two more medals to go and I can sign off. Immortal.”
The Bolt show was every bit as compelling as the Rio Games, struggling to avoid the bad press of gunpoint robberies, green pool water and pervasive doping questions, had hoped. Questions about the 29-year-old Bolt’s fitness, as well as the toll years of sprinting have taken on his body, lingered heading into the 100.
In less than 10 seconds, he put them to rest. With Gatlin, de Grasse and others, it was a field full of sub-10 sprinters, and a stumble off the blocks or anywhere on the straight track could have doomed Bolt. Never one to recoil from a big moment, he parlayed a good start into another gold, the crowd cacophonous from gun to finish line.
“It was brilliant,” Bolt said. “I didn’t go so fast but I’m so happy I won. I told you guys I was going to do it.”
Not that there was any question Bolt was the fastest man ever, but his three-Olympics stretch and record times do more than enough to dispel it. Before Bolt, only American Carl Lewis had won Olympic gold twice in the 100 – and his second came after the disqualification of Canadian Ben Johnson. On his attempt at a third, Lewis didn’t even qualify for the race.
Bolt didn’t, technically, either. His hamstring injury kept him out of Jamaica’s Olympic trials. He received a medical exemption and, as he did in the 2008 and 2012 Games, will try to win Olympic golds in his final two events: the 200-meter dash Thursday and the 4×100-meter relay Friday.
Neither carries the cachet of the 100, though, and everything that goes along with it. The challengers stepped up to the line at 10:25 p.m. local time Sunday, looking to make history. Usain Bolt made sure they didn’t. He could have grabbed a microphone, looked at everyone and asked if they were entertained. And the answer, from everyone there, everyone around the world, would’ve been the same.