RIO de JANEIRO — All Usain Bolt does is run. Yes, I realize this is a pretty sketchy way to begin a celebration of Bolt, but let’s follow this silly line for a second.
All Usain Bolt does is run. People run in just about every sport. True, they don’t run as fast as he does, but they also have various handicaps such as the necessity to dribble a ball at the same time, or they are draped with about 25 pounds worth of padding and armor, or they must run with the unwelcome knowledge that they will likely soon get hit very hard by another person or a wall.
All Usain Bolt does is run.
We’ve seen faster runners. He doesn’t run fast compared to, say, a cheetah. Heck, you don’t have to go all the way to cheetah — he doesn’t run as fast as a wildebeest or a greyhound or a kangaroo or a Zebra.
All Usain Bolt does is run.
He doesn’t run far either. You know: 100 meters. Maybe 200 meters. The distance you usually have to walk your dog to get her to do her business. His races last 10 seconds, 20 seconds, that’s it, a traffic light, an elevator ride, the time it takes after your swipe your credit card for the little signature box to pop up.
And so, all this being true, why in the world is Usain Bolt the most thrilling athlete on planet earth? Why is Usain Bolt the one athlete at these Olympics, the only one, who transcends country, who rises up over nationalism, who is front page news in every newspaper on six continents?
This was the thought that kept echoing Sunday night as Usain Bolt lined up for his third 100-meter Olympic final. It’s the thought that ALWAYS echoes in my mind when watching Bolt: Why is this so awesome? I’ve been lucky enough to be there for all three of Bolt’s Olympic productions, and I can tell you: There’s no rush in sports quite like it. I just don’t know why.
Well, the first time, in Beijing, there was the element of surprise. We didn’t know him yet, not really, and so everything he did left us thunderstruck. He didn’t just debut at those Olympics, he landed — the way the Beatles landed, the way Apollo 11 landed, the way Pokemon Go landed.
He was so ridiculously fast then that speed actually bored him. He ran the 100-meters three times, and he pulled up in all three races. In the final, he ran hard for maybe 70 meters, 75, pulled into a coast, and STILL set the world record. How fast could he have run that day? He smiled broadly. “Faster,” was all he would say.
Later he set the 200-meter world record too, a Michael Johnson record many thought unbreakable. And then Bolt danced around the stadium and celebrated with the crowd and, on the spot, invented the superhero called Usain Bolt.
The second time, in London, Bolt was more businesslike. We knew him. We had expectations of him. These weighed Bolt down. Yes, he still clowned around, still mugged for the cameras, still wore the golden shoes and still talked the brash talk. But there were doubters to vanquish. He’d had a sketchy couple of years. He’d fouled out of the world championships. He’d been passed in many people’s minds by his countryman Yohan Blake. He wanted to prove the skeptics wrong. He wanted people to acknowledge him as the greatest sprinter who ever lived.
And so he won the 100 and 200 again, first man to ever win both events at consecutive Olympics.
Sunday, nobody was entirely sure what to expect. Bolt is 29 now. He was hurt badly enough that he had to pull out of the Jamaican Olympic Trials. Track writers prepared their Bolt obituaries, you know, just in case.
And then he got to the start, and the crowd in Brazil roared. Then there was silence. There is nothing like that silence before a Bolt race, so filled with anticipation and curiosity and hope that we will see something miraculous. At the gun, Bolt seemed a touch late. American Justin Gatlin and Canadian youngster Andre de Grasse pulled ahead. In this race, unlike Bolt’s other two 100-meter Olympic races, it wasn’t clear that Bolt would catch them.
And then, suddenly, about 60 or 70 meters into the race, it became clear. Bolt may not be as explosive a runner as he was in Beijing or even London. But, if you put him in front of a crowd and tell him a gold medal is on the line, Bolt will fly. He sprinted by the second- and third-fastest men on earth like they were on Acme jet powered roller skates. And, after an exhilarating three or four second burst, the race was won. Before Bolt got to the finish line, he turned left and mugged for the camera. As he got to the finish line, he pounded his chest in victory.
His time of 9.81 was considerably slower than London and Beijing, but Bolt already set his times. He’s done racing the clock. Winning is all that matters now.
After it ended — while Bolt picked up a huge stuffed Olympic mascot and took off his golden shoes and posed for the cameras and entertained the crowd — I wondered again, like I’ve wondered for eight years, why his races are so gloriously wonderful and gripping and electrifying. Why he amazes the world. All he does is run.
Then again, all Adele does is sing. All J.K. Rowling does is write books. All Morgan Freeman does is narrate. All Chuck Norris does is kick ass. Yes, all Usain Bolt does is run. But when you watch a person do something better than it’s ever been done before, it stops being just that thing. Somehow, it morphs into magic.