Usain Bolt, track's most beloved star, nears finish line
Sprinting icon looking to go out on top at world championships
In between polishing my teeth the other day, my dentist, who knows I'm involved in covering sports, blurted out the following:
"I'm from Bolt's hometown, Sherwood Content," she beamed.
"He is beloved there. He's done so much for the school kids all over Jamaica."
As I rinsed out and prepared for her to work on the uppers, I thought to myself what a fitting testament it was to the biggest star in track and field, arguably in all of sport, as he makes ready for his final performance in London at the world championships.
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Usain Bolt is beloved everywhere. And why shouldn't he be?
After all, Bolt has created a career which has provoked almost total admiration. He is the most gregarious, awe-inspiring and dominating runner in the history of athletics.
He is recognizable to a vast majority of people all over the world because he is the fastest human being to have ever run.
Even his last name is synonymous with speed.
"He is huge in our sport," says Canadian hurdler and team co-captain Phylicia George from a training base in Spain before heading to London for the championships. "There aren't many characters that have the power to transcend the sport, but he's one of them. Hopefully there will be more coming along soon."
The sun king
Bolt's accomplishments and records are not the point here. It's more important to consider what they mean as a body of work and the sporting artist who conceived of them.
He is unquestionably track and field's leader of the band and has been for almost a decade.
Having been at the Bird's Nest in Beijing in 2008 when the giant-sized Jamaican won his first Olympic gold medal in the 100 metres in a stupefying world-record time and touched off a frenzy of adulation, I can attest to his magnetic attraction.
Bolt is like the sun. He causes people to gather in his energy and light.
"What Bolt has been able to do, and how, leaves all of us in awe," says world champion hurdler Perdita Felicien, who is covering the championships trackside in London.
"I don't particularly subscribe to the idea that Bolt makes athletics look better to those who think the sport is full of cheats. Sure, some may raise an eyebrow at his dominance, but he is personable, approachable and charismatic. You pair that with indomitable performances on the track and never having failed a drug test — that keeps the Usain Bolt brand healthy."
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Bolt's brand is more than just healthy. It's pre-eminent.
To a generation of followers he has managed to rise above the constant clatter which says, with solid evidence, that much of track and field is dirty.
Whether it's true or not, Bolt is seen to be clean. And as he prepares for his final performance, he is intent on making his exit as the world's most revered athlete.
"When you think about famous sportsmen, a number of names come to mind — Ronaldo, Messi, Federer, Nadal, LeBron and Tiger. But in my opinion, the name most relevant to the bulk of the global population is Usain," says world championship decathlon medallist Michael Smith, who will help call Bolt's final race for CBC Sports.
"While the infrastructure requirements and the athletic nuances of tennis, golf, basketball, hockey and football/soccer can be debated, everyone on the planet knows what it means to be fast — and it just so happens that Usain is the fastest human that has ever lived."
Bolt is, therefore, widely recognizable, and what he does is universally understood. But it's the way he goes about his business that most appeals to the imagination and consistently serves to embellish his lustre.
No one beats him — ever.
Bolt false started and was disqualified from the 100 final at the 2011 world championships in South Korea, becoming one of the first victims of the IAAF's zero-tolerance policy on jumping the gun. And he relinquished, years later, the 4x100 relay gold medal from the 2008 Beijing Olympics because a teammate failed a drug test.
But when he's in the race, start to finish, Bolt is always victorious.
And not only that, he does it with a style that has not been seen before.
"The days of the caged lion bravado and ego at the starting line of the 100 metres has been washed away with an engaging smile, a reggae swagger and the famous Bolt pose," reflects Smith. "His career and accomplishments will be remembered brightly for the remainder of the century, for sure."
And that may be the essential beauty of Bolt — that he will not allow the sense of wonder he has created in his many followers to be diminished by the inevitable reality of decline.
He will do everything in his power to go out a winner.
"I believe he is worthy of adulation because there has been no one like him," Felicien concludes. "It's quite possible the times he has run will outlive him and all of us who are watching."
Bolt has gone on record as saying that he is not comfortable with losing.
But before he says goodbye, there is still one race to run.
And for the world's fastest human being, the beauty of the finish line awaits.