RIO DE JANEIRO — The first time he became a star. The second time a legend. Winning his third straight Olympic 100-meter race on Sunday night — a feat no man or woman had ever accomplished and few even fathomed — only raised the bar. As he usually does, Usain Bolt set it to sights only he can see.
“Somebody said I can become immortal,” Bolt said after his latest win. “Two more medals to go, and I can sign off. Immortal.”
The 100 meters is one of the Olympics’ signature events, and it has featured superstars like Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis. But with his electric win Sunday night at Olympic Stadium, Bolt is the only one to ever capture the Olympic title three times.
He won gold here with a time of 9.81 seconds, besting American Justin Gatlin by 0.08 seconds. Canada’s Andre De Grasse took bronze with a personal-best time of 9.91 seconds.
Bolt came to these Olympics intent on winning three more gold medals before walking away. He’d already defined this era of track, helping his country swathe the sprints in green and yellow. Bolt’s win came just one day after fellow Jamaican Elaine Thompson won the women’s 100, and Jamaicans have now won both the men’s and women’s 100-meter races at the each of the past three Olympics. The last person not named Bolt to win the men’s 100: Gatlin at the 2004 Games.
While the first week of these Olympics was a celebreation of Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian ever, the second week is for its biggest showman, the fastest man on this planet and, as best as scientists can tell, any other one as well. Even before Bolt took the track for the finals, the crowd was treated to a world-record performance by South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk in the men’s 400 meters, but the Jamaican superstar was clearly the main event.
The sprinters emerged from the tunnel one at a time. Gatlin, with a pair of doping offenses marring the early stages of his career, received a mixed reaction with plenty of boos. But when Bolt’s name was called, the stadium shook. He strutted out like a heavyweight champion before a prize fight. He stretched his arms to the side, not unlike the statue of Christ the Redeemer that watches over this city
They stood on their feet and chanted “Bolt!” But when he finally settled into the starting blocks, 60,000 people fell silent. When the starter’s gun fired, his 6-foot-5-inch frame uncoiled and then rocketed ahead. The mute crowd — partisan only in the sense they all hoped to bear witness to something great — erupted into a roar.
For Bolt to cover 100 meters, he usually needs about 41 strides. Like most races, this one was decided well before the 41st.
Gatlin came out hot, bounding in front of the field. By the time the American became upright and lifted his head, Bolt was already gaining on him. Those long strides cover so much ground, and it was quickly clear that no one would be catching the Jamaican star. It looked effortless, if only because no one can mimic him.
“Bolt is Bolt,” said American sprinter LaShawn Merritt, who will take aim at Bolt’s 200-meter crown here. “There’s not a lot of dissecting what he does.”
As Bolt approached the finish line, he cast his eyes on the video scoreboard high above, where even he could watch history unfold. Easing off the gas, he tapped his chest with his right hand and raised his index finger into the air.
Like his previous wins, it was difficult to tell who was having more fun, the fans who’d just witnessed history or the runner who’d just made it. His victory lap was a one-man party as he posed for cameras, snapped selfies, accepted gifts, even carrying a giant stuffed animal off the track with him.
In another era, statues might be erected of Gatlin. Instead, he unwittingly carved out eternal bridesmaid status in the sport’s history books long before Sunday’s race began. At the 2012 Olympics, Gatlin lost to Bolt by 0.14 seconds. At the 2013 world championships, he lost by 0.14. And at least year’s world championships, he finished barely 0.08 seconds behind — the same margin that separated him and Bolt in Sunday’s Olympic final.
“We work 365 days a year to be here for nine seconds,” Gatlin said after the race. “At the age of 34, to race these young guys and still make the podium feels so good.”
He felt confident coming into Sunday’s race, and he easily won his semifinal heat with a time of 9.94 At 34, he has somehow been posting some of the best times of his life, aging and progressing unlike just about every other elite sprinter who’d come before him. Even Bolt, as consistent and dominant as he has been, seemed to plateau to his mid-20s. His world records came seven years ago, and though he was with very rare exception always the first across the finish line, his marks always seemed safe — for now, at least, maybe forever.
“When it comes down to it, I guess I’ve given him his closest races in all of his career,” Gatlin said. “To be able to say that at the age I am now, it’s an honor.”
Bolt first stormed the Olympic stage eight years ago at the Beijing Games. He entered those Olympics as a promising runner and left as a superstar, his antics, personality and bravado winning fans and making headlines around the world.
“I blew my mind,” he said back then, “and I blew the world’s mind.”
It felt like bluster then, but all he did since was confirm his athletic dominance time and time again. Setting world records and breaking them again. Winning world championships 11 times over. Olympics titles now seven times with two more opportunities waiting this week.
Bolt will try to win his third straight Olympic 200-meter race this week, and then he’ll try to help the Jamaicans win their third straight 4×100 relay. He said following his latest Olympic title that he didn’t come to Rio de Janeiro to win a single gold medal.
“It’s a good start,” Bolt said.