BOLT IS DOWN TO ONE LAST BLAZ­ING CUR­TAIN CALL

In an age of Olympic scan­dal, Ja­maican sprinted past it all, Ed­die Pells writes.

Windsor Star - - SPORTS+CLASSIFIEDS - The As­so­ci­ated Press

Muham­mad Ali stood alone on many fronts, but Joe Fra­zier, Ge­orge Fore­man and a few others still stood toe to toe with him in the ring. Jack Nick­laus con­tended with Arnold Palmer on the front end of his ca­reer and Tom Wat­son on the back end.

Usain Bolt? No­body has been a match for him, on or off the track.

The man who re­shaped the record book and saved his sport is say­ing good­bye. His sprints through the 100 me­tres and Ja­maica’s four-by-100 re­lay at the world cham­pi­onships, which be­gin Fri­day, are ex­pected to pro­duce golds yet again, and leave track with this dif­fi­cult ques­tion: Who can pos­si­bly take his place?

“You would have to have some­one who’s dom­i­nat­ing, and no one’s do­ing that,” said Michael John­son, the for­mer worl­drecord holder at 200 and 400 me­tres and per­haps the sport’s bright­est star in the 1990s. “You’d have to have some­one who has that some­thing spe­cial like he has in terms of personality and pres­ence. You’re not go­ing to have that.”

Though he will not re­tire un­de­feated, Bolt stands in the rarest of com­pany: an ath­lete who was never beaten when the stakes were great­est. With a show­man’s flair as tran­scen­dent as his raw speed — Chicken McNuggets for din­ner, his fa­bled To The World pose for dessert and danc­ing away at night­clubs till dawn — he hoisted his entire trou­bled sport upon his shoul­ders and made it watch­able and rel­e­vant.

Since his era of dom­i­nance be­gan in 2008, Bolt went un­de­feated at the Olympics — nine for nine — in the 100, 200 and four-by-100 re­lay. (One of those medals was stripped be­cause of dop­ing by a team­mate on the 2008 re­lay team.) He has set, and re-set, the world records in all three events. His marks of 19.30, then 19.19, at 200 me­tres were once thought vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble. He set a goal of break­ing 19 sec­onds in Rio de Janeiro last sum­mer, and when he came up short, it be­came clear the bar­rier will be safe for years.

At the world cham­pi­onships, Bolt’s only loss came in 2011, when he was dis­qual­i­fied for a false start in the 100 me­tres. Ja­maican team­mate Yo­han Blake won the ti­tle that year, as well as the Ja­maican na­tional cham­pi­onships at 100 and 200 me­tres lead­ing to the Lon­don Olympics. Head­ing back to Lon­don five years later, Blake is an af­ter­thought and Bolt’s mas­tery of this sport re­mains un­chal­lenged.

“I’ll be sad to see some­one like him go,” said Amer­ica’s Justin Gatlin, Bolt’s longest and stur­di­est chal­lenger, who has been disin­gen­u­ously por­trayed as the brood­ing bad boy set against Bolt’s care­free party guy. “He’s such a big fig­ure in our sport. Not only is he a big fig­ure, but the kind of guy who al­ways will be a com­peti­tor when he steps onto the line.”

Though it’s tricky to com­pare dom­i­nance in track to that in any other sport, there’s an el­e­ment of Nick­laus in Bolt’s dom­i­nance. Im­pres­sive as his 18 ma­jor cham­pi­onships are, Nick­laus’s 19 sec­ond-place fin­ishes and 73 top 10s spoke to his abil­ity to get into the mix in most of the ma­jors over the quar­ter-cen­tury while he was col­lect­ing ti­tles. Nick­laus had to fend off Palmer, Wat­son, Johnny Miller and a dozen other le­git­i­mate con­tenders at ev­ery event. Bolt hasn’t faced any­thing like that.

At the worlds two years ago, Gatlin had Bolt beaten in the 100 but leaned in at the fin­ish line a mi­crosec­ond too early. Bolt passed him and won by 0.01 sec­onds. The Amer­i­can all but ad­mit­ted he psyched him­self out.

Speak­ing to the pres­sure of rac­ing some­one such as Bolt, the Scottish sports his­to­rian and for­mer Olympic coach Tom McNab com­pared sprint­ing to run­ning in a tun­nel.

“And once you be­come aware of what’s hap­pen­ing out­side your tun­nel, you’re in trouble,” he said.

In boxing, Ali wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily unbeatable, but he was in­com­pa­ra­ble as both a sharp­wit­ted show­man and an ath­lete with a so­cial con­science, us­ing his plat­form to preach tol­er­ance and op­pose war.

Bolt hasn’t sought that sort of im­pact — at least not yet — but it’s hard to over­state the mark he made on his trou­bled sport and thus the Olympics, which have long fea­tured ath­let­ics as the must-see event of the fi­nal two weeks.

Over years and decades, the show­case sport of the Olympics has de­volved into a sor­did litany of dop­ing scan­dals. The lat­est con­cerns wide­spread cor­rup­tion and cheat­ing in Rus­sia, and head­ing into Rio, it un­der­mined not only the sport and its man­agers, but the Olympics and their lead­ers’ will­ing­ness to deal with it. But when Bolt saun­tered onto the track, flashed a peace sign and blew a kiss to the crowd, all was for­got­ten.

When he headed to Lon­don for the Olympics in 2012, Bolt held all the records, but was por­trayed as vul­ner­a­ble fol­low­ing the false start, a long list of nag­ging in­juries and his losses to Blake. By the time he left, he had pretty much anointed him­self as the great­est. Four years later, he said that was pre­cisely his goal: “To be among Ali and Pele,” he said.

He’s on that list, but when the lights go out after the re­lays Aug. 11 — 10 days be­fore his 31st birth­day — it will be time to say good­bye.

“Once he’s gone,” McNab said, “there’s no ma­jor personality that would make any sig­nif­i­cant im­pact at the world level.”

ALEXAN­DER ZEMLIANICHENKO/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS/FILES

Usain Bolt said he set out to “be among Ali and Pele” as an all-time elite ath­lete.

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