No Bolt, less elec­tric­ity in track

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - COLLEGE FOOTBALL / NFL -

Muham­mad Ali stood alone on many fronts, but Joe Fra­zier, Ge­orge Fore­man and a few oth­ers still stood toe-to­toe 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 re­sus­ci­tated his sport is say­ing good­bye. His sprints through the 100 me­ters and Ja­maica’s 4x100 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 world-record holder at 200 and 400 me­ters 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. And 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 — 9 for 9 — in the 100, 200 and 4x100 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 me­ters, were once thought vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to achieve. 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 me­ters. Ja­maican team­mate Yo­han Blake won the ti­tle that year, as well as the Ja­maican na­tional cham­pi­onships at 100 and 200 me­ters lead­ing to the Lon­don Olympics. Head­ing back to Lon­don for the world cham­pi­onships 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. “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’ 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.

Yet they shared this im­por­tant sim­i­lar­ity: Of­ten, the con­tests were over be­fore they even be­gan. Or, as Tom Weiskopf once said: “Jack knew he was go­ing to beat you. You knew Jack was go­ing to beat you. And Jack knew that you knew that he was go­ing to beat you.”

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 sharp-wit­ted 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 dif­fi­cult to over­state the mark he made on his lan­guish­ing sport and, thus, the Olympics, which have long fea­tured track and field as the must-see events of the sec­ond week.

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 Bolt saun­tered onto the track, flashed a peace sign and blew a kiss to the crowd, and spir­its were lifted. Not just for the 9, or 19, sec­onds while he was run­ning in the 100 or 200. He made track, and thus, the Olympics, em­i­nently watch­able.

He’ll do it one more time on a smaller stage — track’s world cham­pi­onships — but a stage with plenty of sym­bolic mean­ing.

Bolt held all the records when he trav­eled to Lon­don for the Olympics in 2012, 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 left lit­tle doubt about who was 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.

AP/THOMAS KIENZLE

Ja­maica’s Usain Bolt will re­tire af­ter next week’s world cham­pi­onships. Bolt, who has won nine Olympic gold medals, leaves as one of track and field’s most dom­i­nant per­form­ers.

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