The Usain Bolt phenomenon

I did not watch much of the Olympics though I did catch some glimpses of some of the sprint events when I was in a home where the TV was on. In general, I like it when countries that are not traditional sporting powerhouses do well and so was pleased to see that the countries of Southeast Asia had their best Olympics ever.

While the developed world still continues to dominate the games in general, it is quite remarkable how when it comes to track events, other countries are taking the lead with Jamaica and Kenya being the most prominent. Of course, Usain Bolt of Jamaica has been the face of this shift, dominating in the men’s sprint events for three consecutive Olympics.

Bolt is a showman who loves to play to the audience and has brought attention to sprinting the way that Muhammad Ali brought to boxing and Tiger Woods to golf, in that even people who had little interest in those sports now pay attention.

I tend to dislike people who are boastful. What is interesting about Bolt is that though he repeatedly claims to be the greatest, his boasting seems somehow playful, oscillating between overtly theatrical and matter-of-fact. And unlike Ali, he does not trash talk his rivals, and they seem to respect him in turn.

It is off the track as much as anything else the sport will feel the void. When he’s gone there will be no replacement, just a competing roster of normal scale humans beings. The Bolt persona above all will be missed; commercial catnip, but also an intriguing thing in itself. There is undoubtedly a real Bolt in there somewhere, some private part of himself that has remained discrete throughout the Bolt Supremacy, just as there is some clever misdirection in the party boy persona, the Swedish women’s handball team schtick, the much-trumpeted chicken nuggets. The casual airs are an act of intimidation, a racing tactic. The playfulness with De Grasse in the semi-finals was a part of this, an invitation to blink first.

Another odd thing: other sprinters like Bolt. No one resents him, or shows irritation at his theatrics. It isn’t hard to see why. For a start Bolt makes them money. Tyson Gay has said his own revenues increased steadily as soon as Bolt started beating him, so profound was Bolt’s effect on the entire sport. The wealth has been shared, if not the medals.

Bolt has said that this will be his last Olympics and he will undoubtedly be leaving on a high note having won consecutive gold medals in all three events he competed in three consecutive Olympics. On the other hand, he may find it hard to stay out of the public eye and, like Ali and Woods, may return and try to recapture the old glory. He is just 30 and although that is old for a sprinter, it is not prohibitively so. After all, Justin Gatlin won the 100m silver medal in Rio, coming second to Bolt, and he is 34 years old and competing in what might have been his fourth Olympics, except that he was forced to miss the 2008 event while serving a doping ban.

If Bolt is motivated enough, he may well be able to repeat his performance in 2020 in Tokyo.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    …some private part of himself that has remained discrete …

    Well, I would hope it wouldn’t blend into everybody else around him.

    (Obviously, the Grauniad still has some copyediting issues…)

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