The case for Usain Bolt for SI's 2015 Sportsman of the Year

Richard O'Brien makes his argument for Usain Bolt for Sports Illustrated's 2015 Sportsman of the Year. 
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Usain Bolt is one of the leading contenders for Sports Illustrated's 2015 Sportsman of the Year. You can see the full list and the entire series of essays that make the argument for each candidate here.​ 

Making a case for Usain Bolt as Sportsman of the Year is almost an annual exercise. Since his electrifying triple-gold-medal, triple-world-record emergence onto the world stage at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Bolt has been among the most compelling figures in all of sports. Again and again, in the biggest competitions, he has not only delivered transcendent performances on the track, but has done so with a larger-than-life sense of fun and an engagement with fans that provide a welcome contrast to the glowering and seemingly joyless “intensity” of so many of today’s sports superstars.

To be fair, though, 2015 was actually something of an off-year for Bolt—at least by the standards of a guy who goes by the nickname of Superman. He’d lost most of 2014 to injury and then, in a season that would culminate in August with the world championships, he got off to a dismayingly slow start. After laboring to a 20.29 for 200 meters (more than a second slower than his world record) in Eugene in June, Bolt announced that it was time to “go back to the drawing board.” Two weeks later, he pulled out of the Jamaican national championships and a pair of Diamond League meets. Suddenly track and field faced the dispiriting prospect of staging its showcase event with its one true headliner either at less than his best or, quite possibly, absent entirely. 


To many observers, there was even a moral element to the situation. With Bolt struggling, the fastest man of 2015 at both 100 and 200 meters was Justin Gatlin of the United States, the 2004 Olympic 100-meter champion who since that triumph had served two suspensions for testing positive for a banned substance before returning to competition in 2010. The reemergence of Gatlin seemed a victory for the drug cheats. So when Bolt showed some glimpses of fitness midsummer, running 9.87 for 100 meters in London, and committed to running in Beijing, the looming showdown between the never-tested-positive Jamaican and the twice-dirty American was cast as nothing short of a spiked-shoe battle between good and evil, a contest for the very soul of track and field.

That take, of course, was both overheated and simplistic. The fallout from PED use is poisoning the sport, but no single race or pair of races will change that. As Tim Layden put it on in his sharply nuanced preview of the world championship 100, “What we have Sunday is a simple footrace. Track and field’s problems will still be there at the finish.”

If so, Bolt did his best to help everyone forget them for a few glorious moments. Returning to Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium—site of his first great triumphs seven years before—in the unlikely role of underdog, he also reinforced his status as one of the all-time great big-moment performers in sports. Surviving a stumble in his 100-meter semifinal, Bolt was focused and flawless in the final, edging Gatlin for the gold by one-hundredth of a second. Four days later, he simply ran away from Gatlin and the rest of the field to take the 200 in 19.55, the fastest time in the world for 2015.


After that race, wrapped in a Jamaican flag, he ambled barefoot and beaming through a victory lap during which he gave autographs and posed for selfies with seemingly at least half of the fans gathered in the Bird’s Nest. He even bounced up smiling after being run over by a Segway-riding cameraman. Oh, and then he went on two days later to grab a third gold by anchoring Jamaica to victory in the 4x100 relay.

Bolt, who turned 29 two days before his victory in the 100, may not have been at his very best in 2015. But, as always, he gave his very best when it mattered most—and in the process reminded us all of the thrills and the joy that even a troubled sport can provide. Superman? Sure. But Sportsman too.