RIO DE JANEIRO — The man’s job is to bring joy. For the ceremonial moments just before his race, for the fewer than 10 seconds during which he sprints quickly over the surface of a running track, and for the celebratory minutes just after the race is finished, Usain Bolt of Jamaica is expected to restore peace to the Olympic world. He is asked to transport us to a magical place where all of the athletes are free of drugs and none of them are mugged at gunpoint and all of the officials are generous idealists in service of the greater good of the five rings. There are no controversies here, there is only the big man and 100 meters of earth, disappearing beneath his feet and fleeing from behind him, until he crosses the finish line to roaring and relieved approval.
His job, in short, is to rescue the modern Olympic Games and let them breathe clean air. And not in the way that American swimmers Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky and gymnast Simone Biles rescue the Olympics by keeping U.S. television viewers sated with medals and repeated playings of The Star-Spangled Banner. Bolt is expected to save the Olympics from the galloping scourge of mistrust and disinterest, expected to act as the beacon of purity that brings us back to another time.
This is a tall order, but Bolt is always game to try.
On Sunday night, a warm, Brazilian winter’s eve, with the lights of the Rio Olympic Stadium illuminating an eerie haze, Bolt took the gold medal in the 100 meters for the third consecutive time; only Carl Lewis had ever done it twice. Wearing gold Puma spikes, Bolt easily ran down fast-starting Justin Gatlin of the U.S. and crossed the line in 9.81 seconds, his fastest time in a year that’s been sabotaged by injuries but at age 29 (30 in seven days), the slowest of his three Olympic 100-meter finals. It was a workmanlike gold medal. “I’m happy,” said Bolt. “I’m proud of myself. This is what I came here for.”
From his first gold medal, in the 100 meters at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Bolt has now started 19 championship races in the 100 meters, 200 meters and 4x100-meter relay. He has won 18 of them and his only “loss” was in the 2011 world championships, when he was disqualified for a false start. It is a staggering record of big-race consistency, on a stage where nerves twitch and talented, swaggering men shrink from the moment. “I wanted to set myself apart from everybody else,” Bolt said. He has said repeatedly that these will be his last Olympic Games and that he will retire after next year’s world championships in London. He is a heavy favorite to win the 200 meters Thursday night, sinking his footprints deeper into history.
Bolt’s victory came on a night when all that is great about the sport of track and field was laid out on display, and also much of what is not so great. It was a night when the full-throated adoration of a disappointingly less-than-full stadium bumped up against some ugly disapproval and some staggering organizational incompetence.
It started with a world record in the 400 meters, the second of the track and field competition. At just a few minutes past 10 p.m. in Rio, 24-year-old South African Wayde Van Niekerk, running blind from lane eight, tore around the blue track and threw himself across the finish line in 43.03 seconds, shattering American Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old world record of 43.18 seconds. Van Niekerk not only ran alone in the night, with no targets to chase outside him, but he also crushed two Olympic champions, 2012 gold medalist Kirani James of Granada (43.76) and 2008 winner LaShawn Merritt of the U.S. (43.85).
The son of a woman whose athletic career was stunted by apartheid, coached by 74-year-old Anna Botha, Van Nierkerk ran as if in fear down the backstretch, as one must from the outside line. “I thought they were going to catch me,” he said after the race. “I felt very alone out there.” Van Niekerk’s 400 is not only the fastest one-lap race in history, but also arguably the best, given the competition and the stage.
That stage was ceded to the 100-meter finalists, even as Van Nierkerk did his victory celebration. And it was then that atmosphere became part carnival, part tribunal.
(First: The 100 final was scheduled to start at 10:25 in Rio, just one hour and 11 minutes after the last 100-meter semifinal. It is common for the 100 semi and final to take place on the same night, but often 90 minutes apart. On Saturday night, one hour, 23 minutes separated the women’s semifinal from the final. That is still tight, but every minute counts. It would become a contentious topic in the minutes after the race).
The finalists were introduced like boxers, and entered the track through a tunnel near the starting line. Second-to-last among the eight finalists was Gatlin, and when his name was called, loud boos greeted him. Not a smattering of boss, but a chorus of boos. It was the primary sound, drowning out the battling applause, and few longtime track journalists could remember anything like it. It’s impossible to survey the audience, but it’s logical to assume that Gatlin was booed because he is running after serving a four-year doping suspension from 2006-10.
(Much like Russian swimmer Yuliya Efimova was booed before her races, and subsequently called out by American Lilly King, who subsequently also called out Galtin, when prompted. Olympic doping is a small world).
And Gatlin heard it. “You hear everything,” he said. “But you tune that stuff out.’ He tossed out an explanation that he had to know was wrong. “People get excited and enthralled about Usain Bolt.” And then a vague untruth: “I didn’t focus on the boos; I was just happy to see all the American flags in the stands, more than I’ve ever seen at a championship meet.”
Gatlin’s face told another story. He looked heartbroken, as if six years as the poster boy for lifetime bans had finally broken him. He is usually animated and active on the line, but he was neither if those things. He looked as if preferred to be somewhere else.
Bolt said, “It was surprising. I didn’t really expect that. I’ve never heard that before.”
The reception for Bolt was entirely different: Rapturous applause, followed by the chant: "Bolt! Bolt! Bolt!" And then another one, "U-SAIN-BOLT," like "U-S-A!"
As Bolt folded himself into the starting blocks, a season of great promise, his last Olympic season, had melted into a familiar struggle against the same big body that makes him so good. “The one thing I’ve never had is a perfect season,” Bolt said in May. “No injuries, everything smooth, and see how fast I could run.” He was running strong on June, and clocked 9.87 for 100 meters at a meet in Kingston, Jamaica, despite stumbling twice. But three weeks later at the Jamaican Olympic Trials, Bolt strained his low back and left hamstring, which have often given him problems in the past.
“Until then, it was a good season,” said Bolt’s longtime friend and personal assistant, Nugent (N.J.) Walker. “But Usain missed two weeks of training after the trials.” The injury took world records off the table, but Bolt still was able to get back into solid condition for the Games. He won his semifinal race in 9.86 seconds. “I felt good in the semifinal,” said Bolt. “I thought I might be able to run a fast time in the final.”
But the entire field came to the line tired for the final, because of the short gap between the semifinal and final. “I don’t know who did that,” said Bolt. “But it was really stupid.” Gatlin said, “We only had about 30 minutes, once we got out to the warmup track, before we had to go back to the call room.”
Still, Gatlin popped off the line first and opened a small lead on Bolt. It looked to potentially be a rerun of last year’s world championship final in Beijing, when Gatlin had run the fastest time in the world and again, Bolt was fighting injuries. In that race, Gatlin went to the lead and Bolt only caught him at the line, when Gatlin panicked and lost form in the final 10 meters. The winning margin was just .01 seconds, 9.79 to 9.80. But Bolt insisted it wouldn’t be that close this time. “I told you guys it wasn’t going to be like last year, when it was pretty much a dogfight,’ he said. “I’m in much better shape this year.”
Bolt’s start was unspectacular, but his reaction time was only .003 slower than Gatlin’s. “It wasn’t the best start,” said Bolt. I knew all I had to was keep my composure and keep chipping away at the lead.” At 50 meters, Bolt was just half a stride behind Gatlin, but closing so quickly that the outcome was obvious. Gatlin had started well, but while his form was clean, he was moving sluggishly.
He said after the race that he didn’t see Bolt closing on him, despite the fact that they were just two lanes apart. This seems unlikely, but the usually talkative Gatlin still seemed shell-shocked 45 minutes after the finish. Andre de Grasse of Canada, the 21-year-old who won two NCAA titles for USC in 2015, was one lane outside Bolt and very much saw him coming. “I saw Bolt at 70 or 80 meters and I tried to go with him,” said deGrasse. “But he had another gear.”
Bold sailed through the line, beating his chest with his right fist just briefly, a minor version of the celebration that launched his stardom in 2008. His 9.81 was slower than the mystical 9.69 he ran in Beijing and his 9.63 in London. In his career, Bolt has run faster than 9.80 12 times. But he is also not getting younger or healthier.
Gatlin held on for second in 9.89 , the same time that Richard Thompson ran for the silver medal in Beijing. The bronze went to deGrasse in 9.91; he was the only runner in he race to nail down a personal best.
Bolt, meanwhile, did not stop at the finish, instead running all the way around the curve, onto the backstretch and then into the stands in the front straightaway. There, he fell into the crowd and posed for a series of selfies, including one with the three medalists in the heptathlon, whose medal ceremony had just taken place. It was the Full Bolt, the extra that comes with a ticket to his races. Music played and the stadium rocked in celebration. For just an instant, all was right with the Olympic Games.