LONDON — Injured or not, he would have lost. The man we once cheered was already gone.
Usain Bolt would have won. The Usain Bolt we carry in our hearts would have roared back from third place Saturday in the final race of his career, won gold in the 4×100-meter relay and engraved his legacy with one last thrilling victory.
Usain Bolt was not in London for the 2017 world championships. Someone else showed up in his place — this Other Bolt who finished third in the 100 last week, then caught a cramp in the 4×100 and could not finish the race.
Usain Bolt is the man with three world records, nine Olympic triumphs and countless come-from-behind victories. He’s the man who said in Rio last summer, “There was no one on that track that could outrun me to the finish.”
The Other Bolt was outrun to the finish three times in London — and that was just in the 100. So, when the Other Bolt got the baton in third place on the 4×100 anchor leg, it was clear he was not going to win.
It was the worst possible ending for an athlete whose performances and personality kept his struggling sport afloat. Despite this disastrous final meet, Usain Bolt remains the greatest sprinter of all time and one of the most thrilling and popular athletes ever. The memories of the Other Bolt will fade, just as they did of so many other greats who chose not to leave at their peak. Which is their right — to compete as long as their sport gives them joy, not as long as they show us what we want to see.
“No one wants to see Usain go out like that, with an injury on the track in that way,” said Justin Gatlin, who took gold in the 100 and helped the U.S. men win silver in the 4×100 relay. Great Britain won the relay and China finished third.
“He’s done so much from 2008 to now,” Gatlin added. “I think we can look past everything that happened in this championship and congratulate him on his legendary career.”
Bolt always said his joy came from the fans. Asked why he didn’t retire after Rio, his third consecutive Olympics with three gold medals, Bolt said he wanted to run one more season so the people could feel him one more time — and vice versa.
That made his ending even sadder. The 60,000 faithful fans who came to Olympic Stadium to witness history Saturday were deprived of the traditional last lap around the stadium. The sporting world went to bed without a word from their hero. There would be no iconic “To Di World” pose — he went straight to the infirmary and left the arena without a public word. The Jamaican team doctor, Kevin Jones, said he was struck down by a cramp in his left hamstring, “but a lot of pain is from the disappointment of losing the race.”
One has to wonder what the Other Bolt thought as he took the baton on the anchor leg, exited the exchange zone and found himself one stride behind American Christian Coleman and two behind Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake of Great Britain.
He took six strides toward the finish line of his career. The gap did not close. On the seventh, he threw his head back with a grimace, hopped twice to keep weight off his left leg and somersaulted to the track.
Did he realize he could not win? What I’m about to say would be inconceivable for Usain Bolt, but … since his reign began at the 2008 Olympics, he had never been injured in a major race. Could the Other Bolt have chosen to succumb to a twinge in his own body rather than lose to another man?
Blasphemy, I know.
Bolt is 31, with a history of nagging back and hamstring injuries. Is there any graceful way to age? On Saturday, the runners were kept waiting longer than scheduled before their race as the temperature dipped toward 60 degrees. His heart has never been questioned. Enough of that.
It did seem like his heart was elsewhere this final season, though — maybe with his close friend Germaine Mason, whose fatal motorcycle accident in April left Bolt despondent, or skipping ahead to a life that doesn’t require a Spartan existence and vomit-inducing workouts. Bolt made more than $60 million in 2016. The good life beckons.
“He’s a living legend and we look up to him respectfully,” said Sashalee Forbes, a Jamaican sprinter who won bronze in the women’s 4×100. “He shows us, whether you’re down or not, you still can get across that finish line.”
The Other Bolt limped across the finish line, through the tunnel and disappeared. Let him go. Let’s hold on to the memory of Usain Bolt, in first place.