By Lynn Hong (18A13A)
He was always known for his finishes. Some criticised his starts as slow, sloppy, but he would hold us all in rapture as he flew down the home straight, feet barely seeming to ghost the track. He would surge across the line, flashing a smile. Don’t blink, you might miss it.
The 2017 World Championships was to be his last run. He was slated for the 100-metre followed by the 4×100-metre relay before bowing out, hopefully as a champion.
But this is how it ends: a desperate clutch at a hamstring, feet faltering, the man lying helpless on the track. An official with a wheelchair comes out for him. The world’s fastest man finishes his final race, the 4×100-metre relay, in last place. He is too great a man to pity, yet inside we say this is not right, this is not how he should leave. “Forever faster” we all said, but even Bolt, with his powerful strides, cannot outrun time.
He did manage to make it stand still, though, when he lit up the track. In his hands, or rather the step of his golden boots, those 9.58 seconds were a whole history of human achievement. His towering 1.95m frame, hurtling forward, swallowed the impossibility of the feat and spat it back out, triumphant in the face of history. The 9-year-old me could have counted the seconds off my fingers, if I could tear my eyes off the man in gold on the screen who made everyone else look like they were moving backward.
He gave ten years of his life (and then some) against the clock, with its digits running and seconds slipping too fast for the eye to follow. They say lightning never strikes the same place twice, yet he did it again and again. Bolt is the only sprinter to have achieved the “triple double” – both the Olympic 100-metre and 200-metre titles at three consecutive Olympics (2008, 2012 and 2016). The big man from the sunshine state with the roguish attitude and easy smile, bearing the standard for a species. Ten years of his life – a long time at the top of a sport measured in milliseconds.
The saying goes “a bolt from the blue” – we hadn’t seen him lose in many years now, so the world was shellshocked when he finished third in the 100 metres, behind the blue-vested Americans. The fairytale ending to his individual career was not to be.
The audience’s reaction was telling. He was given the stadium roar of a victor, the crowds on their feet in rapture. It didn’t matter that this last time, he would not see gold. He gave them a hero, in what was a drug-addled and wayward sport – he was impossibility incarnate with a tongue-in-cheek grin.
They say the quality of a champion lies in the grace with which he wears defeat. He embraced the winner, Justin Gatlin of the United States, even when the crowd did not. He obliged a stadium of flag-waving fans with selfies and smiles, on this last bittersweet lap of victory. We are left wondering if we will ever have another champion like him.
The 4×100 metre relay a week on was meant to be a redemption of sorts, if we even dare say that this man needed redeeming at all. Jamaica came into the last leg trailing the Americans and the British. The world held their breath for his swan song. But why did it have to end, we asked, despairing, in the crashing notes of a fallen giant? If sport was ever about what each competitor deserves, then he should have swept the medals, left the track he ruled in all his resplendent glory. But sport doesn’t deal in proportionality, and sentiment doesn’t win medals.
No sporting hero, least of all Bolt, goes gently into that good night. Even now the fingers are being pointed, and his supporters rail on his behalf against the injustice of it all. Some even proclaim they await his second coming. We will ask why this happened, but the answer will not eclipse his legend.
“Anything is possible, I don’t think limits,” he said. And all this while it seemed like there were none to contain him. The first athlete to hold both the 100-metre and 200-metre record in modern athletics, the first athlete to win three titles in both distances at the World Championships – the list goes on. The records fell under his feet and the world under his spell, in utter awe of the man in gold. He was a giant in the world of athletics, but at the beginning, they said a man his size would never be able to sprint. Thank goodness he did.