There is, perhaps, no other athlete that has so much caught the attention of the whole world in contemporary time as Usain Bolt. It is not just about his talent. Neither is it about his imposing frame. Usain Bolt brings something extra to his trade that makes fans enjoy watching him. He is an enigma who starts and ends a race in an unusual electrifying fashion. Bolt is a showman on the tracks and no doubt, the tracks, the fans and the sport immeasurably love him. The way he does his lap of honour at the end of each race is simply exhilarating.
Unlike any other superstar sprinter, unlike Carl Lewis or Michael Johnson, after winning a race, the drama has just begun for Bolt as he stops for every selfie, holding his now famous and iconic pose for every photographer. Sometimes it takes him an hour to complete a lap of honor when the race proper had taken him less than 10 seconds. For Bolt, it goes beyond winning. It is about how much of the ecstasy of winning he could savour. It is a combination of these that have made Bolt the most globally recognized sportsman since Muhammad Ali, with a greater global fan base than a Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan.
Like every good story, there is always a beginning. For Bolt, his real burst into global sporting reckoning began at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Except, perhaps, for die hard track and field enthusiasts, in Beijing the world knew very little about the 21 year rookie. Thus, much was not really expected from him. Indeed, his qualification for the final of the 100m race was considered as enough milestones for him. But then, the young and determined Bolt had other plans. By the time the 1000m race ended that summer night at the magnificent Beijing Olympics Stadium, the entire world was shocked to witness the arrival of a new track king.
Not only did Bolt win the 100m race, he did so by setting a new world record of 9.69 which remains valid till date. Since then, Bolt has grown to become a global sprint phenomenon. His Olympics record is, to say the least, awesome: three Olympics, three gold medals in each of the three races he competed for; a world record over 100m, a world record over 200m, a world record in the sprint 400m relay. Not only has Bolt created Olympic and athletics records, he has equally redeemed the sport from its numerous doping scandals.
But for the grand entrance of Bolt into the scene, athletics was almost being ruined by the several doping scandals that had marred the image of the sport. For instance, at the 2004 Athens Olympics, Shawn Crawford who won the 100m race and was trained by disgraced Coach Trevor Graham, ended his career with a doping sanction. Close behind Crawford in bronze at Athens was Justin Gatlin (the man who ironically spoiled the party for Bolt at his last individual race as an athlete at the 2017 World Athletics Championship 100m final in London) who was another of Graham’s doping products. Gatlin had been banned for one year and four years respectively for dope related offences. So, as the 2008 Beijing Olympics was approaching, almost every record-breaking sprinter – Justin Gatlin, Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery had been busted for drugs. This was the doping ravaged picture of athletics before Bolt came from the blue and gave the sport a clean new lease of life.
Throughout his reign from 2008-2017, as the sport numero uno, Bolt stood tall as the new symbol of athletics and an example that new generation of aspiring athletes could emulate. He showed the world that an athlete does not need to cut corners before becoming a global prodigy. Through a dint of hardwork and sheer determination, Bolt became a cult figure in the sporting fraternity. By the London 2012 Olympics, Bolt had so much elevated the status of the sport that over one million fans across the world jostled to buy the available 80,000 tickets for the 100m final event. This is aside hundreds of millions others that were glued to the television just to catch a glimpse of a ten -second event. Such was the thrilling power that the sport has had upon the world, thanks to Bolt’s captivating influence.
This much was attested to by no other athletic personality than the legendary Michael Johnson whose 200 meters record Bolt shattered. “Athletics was in such a poor shape before Bolt busted into the scene. It is difficult to really put into perspective his impact, because the sport has done such a poor job of promoting itself and policing itself that Bolt has stood apart from the sport. Good for him, otherwise, I think the sport would have dragged him down.” In a blemished period, Bolt has been unblemished. Putting on the now famous Jamaican yellow vest, Bolt has brought so much ecstasy to diverse people across the globe.
Though he lost his last individual race, the final of the 100m at the 2017 World Athletics Championship to dope- prone Justin Gatlin who won in a time of 9.92 secs, with his fellow American Christian Coleman second in 9.94secs and Bolt coming third with 9.95secs, to millions of his admirers and athletics enthusiasts all over the world, it doesn’t really matter anymore. Bolt has given his all to the sport that made him and which he also remade. Athletics now has only one golden boy. Usain Bolt is it! It doesn’t even matter anymore whatever happens at his very last race-the 400m relay race. Bolt would for a long while remain a colossus in the minds of sporting fans across the globe. He has done just enough to put his name in gold in the hearts of sports fans.
The question on the lips of every concerned sport enthusiast the world over is: “What happens to athletics after the exit of Usain Bolt? Finding an appropriate answer to this question would, no doubt, properly help in ascertaining what the future holds for the sport in the post Usain Bolt era. This is why it is, indeed, a sad tale for athletics that it was Justin Gatlin, a 35 year old athlete who has had a drug blemished career that is currently the world 100 meter champion. To many athletics pundits and buffs, this does not augur well for the future of track and field as it might be interpreted to mean the triumph of evil over good. The several boos and jeers that reverberated through the length and breadth of the London Olympics Stadium on the night that Gatlin ‘stole’ Bolt’s crown were indicative of fans’ detestation for cheating and cheats, and by inference their fear for the future of athletics.
Meanwhile, as the curtain draws on Bolt’s eventful and successful sporting career, it is essential to join millions of fans across the world in wishing him the very best in his future endeavours. Thanks, Bolt, for all the sweet sporting memories.
Ogunbiyi is of the Lagos State Ministry of Information and Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja, Lagos.