When Usain Bolt stumbled five steps into the first semi-final of the 100m at the IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015, how many truly thought he would retain his title?
Not many – certainly not as many as have told him in the past 24 hours: “I never doubted you could do it.”
It took just one believer; two, maybe. Bolt never panicked when it happened and neither he nor his coach Glenn Mills panicked afterwards.
“It’s simple, I just stumbled,” Bolt said at his post-race press conference. “I knew I was better than anyone else in the field so I just composed myself and ran hard.”
Bolt’s toughest rival, Justin Gatlin, won his semi in a seemingly effortless 9.77. At the warm-up track between semi and final, Mills told Bolt not to worry about what had happened, nor dwell on the fact that he could not afford a mistake in the final.
“He said: ’Don’t think about the perfect race, just go out and do what you know you can do’,“ Bolt said.
Ultimately, it was Bolt doing what Bolt could do that won him his third world 100m title and Bolt doing what Gatlin knew Bolt could do was a major factor.
It was Gatlin, who five times this season has run faster than Bolt’s winning time of 9.79, who could not execute under pressure, losing his balance and momentum in the last few steps.
“I stumbled in the last five metres, my arms (were) a little flailing,” he said.
“Anyone who goes to the line to go against Usain has to be ready to go to work. In those five metres I let things get away from me. It cost me the race.”
Beijing was the toughest of Bolt’s three World Championships wins at 100m, and the closest. It was likewise the slowest. He was not even the fastest man in the competition, just fastest in the final when it mattered most.
Two things are now apparent. First, Usain Bolt is not finished; second, Bolt is way closer to the end of his career than the start. The exact end-point keeps moving – from Rio 2016 to London 2017. Why not Gold Coast 2018: he loves the beach and has relatives in Australia!
It is a good time to look at what Bolt has done, where he is now and what we can expect in the future.
Usain St Leo Bolt has been amassing global titles since the age of 15 when he won the 200m at the World Junior Championships in Jamaica. He added a world youth title the following year.
Bolt has been an integral part of Jamaica’s relay championship victories and world records, but taking individual titles only he has won three world titles at 100m, three at 200m (plus a silver medal) and four Olympic titles combined over 100m and 200m.
The adoption of a World Championships in 1983, followed by the move to a two-year-cycle from 1991, means modern-day athletes can accumulate titles at a far greater rate than their predecessors. Nonetheless, Bolt now surely stands head and shoulders above all sprinters.
He has held the world record in the 100m continuously from 31 May 2008 when he upset Tyson Gay in New York, improving two more times along the way. He has held the 200m mark since the 2008 Olympic final when he broke Michael Johnson’s ‘unbreakable’ world record.
In that same period, Bolt has won every individual global sprint title available to him aside from the 100m in Daegu in 2011 when he false-started out of the final.
In the first four of those titles – the 2008 Olympic and 2009 world doubles – Bolt set world records, again an unprecedented feat. His 9.58 and 19.19 performances in Berlin may be beyond anyone now, Bolt included.
All those wins were achieved with ease, but here Usain Bolt has proved he can win tough.
Victory over Gatlin in the 100m final over-turned the form book. Bolt has been chasing fitness and form all season. He gave almost as much credit to his doctor – “a lifesaver”, he called Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt – as his coach. He hadn’t had enough races coming in, had struggled in those he had run, and was against an opponent at the peak of his form and confidence.
Bolt should not have won – but he did; a credit to his own unshakeable self-belief.
Now we come to the 200m, where, again, Gatlin should start as the favourite. If he didn’t know by now, Gatlin is in for a battle. “It’s my favourite event,” said Bolt of the 200m. “I want (to win) it more than I wanted the 100m.”
Bolt also told the press conference that he was looking forward to defending his Olympic titles in Rio. The physical problems this year are behind, he says.
“This season started bad and is getting better. Next season will be good from the start,” Bolt promised. Time and advancing age have taught him to respect injuries and take the time to get over them.
A fit Bolt has the measure of his contemporaries, but Beijing has unveiled the brightest talents of the next generation in joint bronze medallist Trayvon Bromell of the USA and Andre De Grasse of Canada. These two grew up watching clips of Bolt’s greatest hits.
De Grasse ran wind-assisted times of 9.75 and 19.58 in winning the NCAA titles this year, while Bromell has a wind-assisted 9.76 to his name. Bolt has caused a new generation to aim higher.
On the evidence of Sunday, Bolt will not go quietly into the night. He can win next year and he has shown he is prepared to scrap mighty hard.
Usain Bolt has a future in the sport in the next two years, which gives the sport time to ponder a future without Usain Bolt.
Len Johnson for the IAAF