Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson and Ed Moses. That’s the list of the best sprinters ever. Each of them dominated their chosen events, winning gold medals and shattering records. Now, with three more gold medals in the Athletic World Championships, Usain Bolt has not only added his name to that list, he might have surpassed them all as the G.O.A.T: Greatest of All Time.
Bolt has collected eight golds at the World Championships, taking him level with Carl Lewis’ record. He also has two silvers, which gives him the edge over Lewis, who has a silver and a bronze. Only two men have ever defended their 100m Olympic title: Bolt and Lewis. But Bolt has gone one one better, becoming the first ever sprinter to win back-to-back Olympic golds in the 200m at the London Games in 2012.
It isn't just that Bolt wins, it is how he wins. His record-breaking times are those out of comic books – times so incredulous that they were not considered possible before he burst on the scene. In that way, he is like Johnson, whose 400m world record set in 1999 still stands. Johnson’s 200m record set in 1996 seemed untouchable too, until Bolt obliterated it, becoming the first man to run under 19.2 seconds.
Bolt has been so far ahead of his rivals in the sprints that he is really only running against himself, no matter how gracefully he might speak of the others. He has the luxury of easing up the finish and enjoying the moment, while the rest are straining every muscle and sinew to reach the line. He knows that even less than his best is good enough, while his best is better than anything the world has seen.
His brilliance on the track is amplified by his showmanship. His trademark lightning pose, the Russian dancing after winning the 4x100m relay (see video here) , the playing to the crowd – makes him more than a champion athlete; it makes him a star.
There was a time when athletics was part of mainstream culture. Owens’ four golds in 1936 were not merely a reflection of his greatness as an athlete, he was the symbol that repudiated the Aryan racism of Adolf Hiter and Nazi Germany.
American Tommy Smith, who won the gold medal in the 200m in the 1968 Games, and John Carlos, who took the bronze, each held up a black-gloved fist during the American national anthem to protest the institutionalised racism that exited in the United States. They knew the world would be watching and it remains the most overt political statement made at the Olympics.
The last true athletic star was Lewis, whose emulation of Owens in winning four gold medals at the Los Angeles Games in 1984 made him a household name. Since then athletics has fallen from mainstream consciousness, beset by doping problems and the rise of other sports, particularly in the US. Every four years, the Olympics resurrects interest in the “World’s Fastest Man”, but it is a fleeting moment that passes quickly.
Bolt has transcended all this. He has become a mainstream star and his astounding feats are followed the world over. He electrifies crowds as his legs start to pump and eat up the ground, making it look like the others are running backwards. It is one of the truly thrilling sights in world sport. He is both a throwback to the past of real track stars and a vision of the future with his blistering speed.
And that is why Bolt is the best in the world and arguably the best ever.