Usain Bolt sprinted and strutted his way to a third-straight 100m gold medal on Sunday night in Rio, retaining his title as world’s fastest man and becoming the first Olympian in history to win any of the track sprints more than twice.
His winning time – 9.81 – was the slowest of his three Olympic wins but the formula was the same. Bolt trailed early, lifted his head, used his long strides to get to the pack and, with the power of a Lamborghini and size of a Range Rover, drifted ahead to leave no doubt. American Justin Gatlin, who had the early lead and had dreams of gold, won silver.
It was another virtuoso performance for the track star who hasn’t lost a major international race since the Beijing Olympics, except at the 2011 world championships when he was DQ’d for a false start. His 100-meter win makes him 18-for-18 since he burst onto the worldwide scene with his chest-pounding 100m win in 2008. Rio was no Beijing – that 9.69 was one of the most electrifying moments sports has ever seen – but it was quintessential Bolt.
Just like in London, Bolt was dogged by questions entering the Olympics. For someone who loves, embraces and thrives in the spotlight, Bolt has been guarded in the last two Olympic years. He only ran a handful of races this season and skipped Jamaican trials with a hamstring tear. (In Jamaica, unlike the U.S., athletes can gain medical exemptions into the Olympics.) Up until the semifinals, the fastest he’d run this season was a pedestrian 9.88 in Kingston. With Justin Gatlin running well (he had the world’s top-two times including a 9.80), would this be the year?
While the heats told us nothing, Saturday night’s semifinals, run an hour before the final, proved to be an appetizer for the main course. Bolt ran a 9.84 in his heat, his fastest time this year, while looking around like he was parallel parking in downtown Kingston. There was simply no doubt about how the final would go, especially when Gatlin ran his 9.95 one heat later. He tried to play it cool and flipped the off switch at the 80-meter mark, but his labor belied the tightness that would present itself in the final. Gatlin simply didn’t have enough in the tank.
Despite that much-publicized rivalry with Gatlin, the two haven’t raced often and, when they have, Bolt has gotten the best of the American, losing just once. Gatlin should have gotten him at the 2013 world championships but leaned early en route to a 0.01-second loss. (That was the night a cameraman on a Segway knocked Bolt over. In a joint press conference, Bolt, who was unhurt, joked that Gatlin had paid off the cameraman. Gatlin, not missing a beat, said he wanted his money back.)
On Thursday night, Bolt will hope to make more history and go back-to-back-to-back in the 200m also. Then, he’ll try to do it again with the Jamaican 4×100 relay team on Saturday night. If he does that, he’ll become the only man other than Michael Phelps to have nine gold medals. (If that happens, we may have a debate on our hands about the Olympic G.O.A.T..) As it is now, Bolt’s gold total sits at seven in seven races, with three coming in the most exciting 10 seconds in sports.