It had the look of an unthinkable loss in the Olympic 200 meters.
But there’s only one opponent that can really beat Bolt: Time.
The Jamaican superstar romped in what he says is likely his last Olympic individual race Thursday night, but finished in 19.78 seconds, .59 short of his own world record – the one he said he really wanted to break.
“I wanted to run a faster time,” said the sprinter, who turns 30 on the night of the closing ceremony. “I knew it was going to be hard to break the world record, because I could tell by my legs. When I came off the corner, my legs decided, `Listen, we’re not going to go any faster.'”
Hard to argue with a win, though, and Bolt has Olympic gold medal No. 8, and a third straight 200 title to go with the same trifecta in the 100. His run for gold No. 9 comes Friday in the 4×100 relays.
All good stuff. But that expression as he crossed the finish line told the real story.
Bolt was leading before those legs on his 6-foot-5 frame had even powered him through the first curve. The field chased him through a thin mist that started about 30 minutes before the race. Andre de Grasse of Canada finished .24 behind and Christophe Lemaitre of France squeaked out bronze by .003 over Adam Gemili of Britain. You could’ve driven a truck through the gap between first and second place.
Way up ahead, Bolt gave every ounce of effort – no hot-dogging or celebrating early as was his wont in some of his best 100s – his arms pumping hard, face twisted with pain and effort as he hugged the left edge of his lane and approached the line.
He glanced to his left to check out the clock. The time came up: 19.78. Not even the fastest 200 run of the season. When Bolt saw it, the reaction looked more like that of someone who’d lost than won.
“All I wanted to do was win the 200 meters one time,” he said, dismissing the notion he was disappointed. “So, to be eight-time gold medalist is shocking. Just proves I’ve worked hard.”
As always, the after-party was great.
With chants of “Usain Bolt, Usain Bolt” ringing out across a mostly full stadium, Bolt paraded around the track with his Jamaican flag while Bob Marley’s “One Love” blared in the background. The once-in-a-lifetime sprinter dropped to his knees and kissed the track before giving his iconic “To The World” pose.
His record in his favorite race still stands, though, at 19.19. He set it in 2009 at world championships in Berlin, breaking the mark he’d set the year before (19.30) when he burst into the Olympics in Beijing.
In the run-up to Rio, Bolt had even suggested he could break the 19-second barrier – who will ever do that now? – in the race he has always called his baby. It’s the sprint he worked on from the very beginning. His coach wanted him to double in the 400, but that went out the window when he set his first world record in the 100 meters about two months before the Beijing Games.
So, the 100 was his hobby, the 200 was his day job, and when he started talking about goals for these Games, he said immortality was the main one.
“What else can I do to the world to prove I am the greatest? I’m trying to be one of the greatest. Be among Ali and Pele,” Bolt said after the race. “I hope after these games, I will be in that bracket.”
He’s there already.
“He’s a championship man, he’s an unbelievable guy,” Lemaitre said. “And he has nothing to prove now.”
But, oh, how that 200 record beckoned.
Why didn’t it happen?
There was a hamstring injury that forced him out of his national championship and reshuffled the schedule in the lead-up to the Olympics, though he looked no worse for wear in capturing the 100 four nights earlier.
There was that lightest coating of rain that glistened off the track, though there has long been debate about whether a bit of moisture can help or hurt with speed.
There was the semifinal the night before, when de Grasse quite brazenly made Bolt work all the way to the line to capture the win. “Thanks to de Grasse in the semifinals, I was tired,” Bolt said.
And, of course, he isn’t 21 anymore.
De Grasse is, and after the act he put on the night before, it was clear he had it coming. He got it. But his silver-medal finish – .10 ahead of Lemaitre – goes well with the bronze he took in the 100 and may pronounce him as the next great sprinter once Bolt leaves the scene.
In the lead-up to the Olympics, Bolt insisted the time is approaching. He plans to compete at the world championships in London next summer, and has said that will be it.
But first, Friday night, and a chance to make it three sweeps over three Olympics, the likes of which we may never see again.
“I’ve proven to the world I’m the greatest,” he said. “I really put Jamaica on the map. I’ve really got people taking a look at where the talent is coming from. I’ve done all I can do.”