Morning Splash by David Rieder.
Forget, for a minute, how fast anyone else had gone recently. None of that mattered. All the attention was on one man, a man with unmatched credentials — someone whose world records were so much faster than anyone else, someone who had come through and won gold time after time when the pressure was on.
Even if he was no longer at his peak, so what? When people think of his sport, they think of this man, and that will still be the case even years after he’s been retired.
I’m talking, of course, about Usain Bolt, he of eight Olympic gold medals and a pair of legendary world records in the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes. This week in London, he raced the 100m for the final time.
He retired from the 200m last year after winning his third straight Olympic gold, but he extended his career one more year to race track’s shortest event at the IAAF World Championships. Of course, if Bolt was going to be on the track, he was going to be noticed. Who could miss him?
Bolt stands above most of his competition — literally, at 6 feet 5 inches tall — and his personality won over those not already enamored with his lightning speed. Behind the starting blocks, he’s always the most loose, punching the air and playing to the cameras as he is introduced.
Within the race, he long ago perfected the art of looking around to check in on his competition. Most memorably, during the 100m final at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Bolt realized that he had a big lead, so he dropped his arms and pounded his chest before he even reached the line — and he still took down his own world record.
His peak came one year after that, at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. That was the meet when he set world records in both sprint events that neither he nor anyone else have touched since — and no one will for a long time. The scoreboard said 9.58 in the 100m and 19.19 in the 200, beating his previous records by 11 hundredths on both occasions.
He would never approach those records again, but Bolt remained invincible. Well, almost. A false start did him in for the 100m at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, but he still won golds in the 200m and 4x100m at that meet.
As for slip-ups, that was it. In every other Olympics and World Championships between 2008 and 2016, Bolt stood on the podium three times, in the 100m, the 200m and 4x100m. He ended up losing the 2008 relay gold after a teammate tested positive for a banned substance. So that’s eight Olympic golds and 11 World titles in his career.
Does that sort of dominance sound familiar?
Well, it should. Hours before Bolt stormed to his first Olympic gold medal on August 16, 2008, at the Birds’ Nest in Beijing, Michael Phelps won his eighth gold medal of the Beijing Games, capping off arguably the greatest single week performance in sports history (one which included seven world records).
In a career that largely overlapped with Bolt’s, Phelps won 23 Olympic gold medals in swimming, more than twice as many as anyone else had ever won in any sport. He won 26 World titles and set 39 world records, 29 of them in individual events.
Phelps’ golden moments came in 2004 at the Athens Olympics, at the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne and, certainly, in 2008 in Beijing. But after 2009, Phelps would never set another world record. He still bagged his fair share of gold medals, but the incredible margins of victory were no more. And he lost plenty.
What Bolt is to the 100-meter dash, Phelps is to the 200 fly. That event was his “baby,” the event he qualified to swim as a 15-year-old in his first Olympics in 2000. He single-handedly redefined the limits of possibility in that event, lowering the world record on eight separate occasions between 2001 and 2009.
But then in 2012, in what at the time he declared would be his final 200 fly, Phelps lost. Chad Le Clos touched him out by five hundredths of a second. Years of spotty training since Beijing had finally caught up to him.
Phelps would return to the sport and swim in Rio, and there he would reclaim his gold in the 200 fly — but only by four hundredths of a second over 21-year-old Japanese Olympic rookie Masato Sakai. An impressive win for sure, but not the same dominant Michael Phelps whose world record is more than a second quicker than anyone had ever been.
And then in his final individual Olympic race, Phelps would lose, and this one was not close. Phelps was the three-time Olympic champion in the 100 fly, but Joseph Schooling won Olympic gold by three-quarters of a second, while Phelps had to settle for a three-way tie for silver.
It was stunning to watch as swimming’s greatest-of-all-time came up so short, but was it really all that surprising? Schooling had quickly ascended the ranks of the world’s top sprint butterflyers, and about two months before Rio, he had narrowly beaten Phelps head-to-head. Phelps was still the greatest, still by-far the best-known swimmer in the world. But arriving in Rio, he was clearly vulnerable.
Phelps, to his credit, was nothing but gracious in defeat.
“Nothing I can do. It is what it is,” Phelps said that night. “Hats off to Joe. That’s an incredible race by him. I’m looking forward to watching how he progresses the next four years.”
And just like Phelps, Bolt wasn’t invincible at his final World Championships, at least not based on the times on paper. In 2017, six men had run faster than Bolt’s season-best time of 9.95. Leading the way was impressive 21-year-old American Christian Coleman, whose season best of 9.82 was eight hundredths faster than anyone else in the world
When he returned to London this year, Bolt was no longer “Bolt.” Sure, he was still incredibly talented and still very capable of winning gold if all broke his way. The aura he inspires with his credentials and personality, still very much intact. But the dominance, not so much.
Still, 60,000 viewers had piled into Olympic Stadium in London, and millions more were watching around the world — me included. Certainly, they were not tuning in to watch Coleman. It was all about Bolt.
Sounds like Phelps, no?
And just like Phelps, when Bolt raced individually, for the final time, he lost. Frankly, it was an amazing effort by Bolt just to make the race so close.
In the 100m final in London, Coleman exploded out of the blocks and took a big lead, while Bolt got off to a terrible start and immediately found himself at the back of the pack. Bolt did come storming back, as he’s known to do, but so did Justin Gatlin, the American who had been runner-up behind Bolt at the 2016 Olympics and both the 2013 and 2015 World Championships.
Gatlin, Bolt and Coleman reached the line at almost the exact same time. All three turned and looked to the scoreboard for clarity. All thought they had won. But only one would get a gold medal, and it was Gatlin.
The final results: Gatlin 9.92, Coleman 9.94, Bolt 9.95. For the first time at a major championships since 2007 and for the first time ever in a 100-meter race, Bolt had lost.
Gatlin had been viciously booed all week by the London crowd for his own history with banned substances (he served a four-year ban from 2006 to 2010), so he pressed his index finger to his lips, imploring the audience to be silent. A vanquished Bolt immediately approached Gatlin and wrapped him in a congratulatory embrace.
It was a moment of great triumph for Gatlin, who had won his first major international gold medal since 2005 and his first since his long, doping-related absence from the sport. And yet, the moment still belonged to the bronze medalist: Bolt.
Bolt took a lap around the stadium as an adoring crowd chanted his name. Photographers followed Bolt, and he bowed to the fans who had come to witness his finale performance.
It was eerily reminiscent of a moment almost 12 months earlier and half an Earth away, when Phelps stood on the pool deck at the Olympic Aquatic Center in Rio, moments after the final swimming race of the Olympic Games, the 400 medley relay — and the final race of his career — and raised his arms as a raucous crowd honored him.
That night, the crowd was thanking Phelps, fully cognizant of the fact that a man who had given them so many memories over the previous decade-plus would never race again.
Usain Bolt still has one race to go in his storied career — like Phelps, his last competitive effort will come on a relay — but late Saturday night, London thanked Bolt for a decade of truly incredible highlights.
No, Bolt’s ending would not be perfect, not with a loss in his final individual race. But remember: neither was Phelps’ final individual swim. And in the end, each of those setbacks will go down as mere footnotes in the chronicles of two of the greatest athletes that Olympic sports have ever known.
All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.