With a win in the 4x100m men’s relay, Usain Bolt, arguably the greatest athlete of this generation, brings his glittering Olympic career to an end. Three different Olympics, three gold medals in three events in each. If the 100m and 200m dash events are the showstoppers – the pinnacle of the Olympic extravaganza, the events where the eyes of the world are glued to – then Usain Bolt is the showstopper of the showstoppers, an individual who lends excitement, awe, envy, and inspiration to the entire world.
This is not a piece about the specifics of his records, the timings of his world records, who he beat and by how much. This piece is an appreciation of the greatest sportsperson of our time, and how fortunate we are to be witnesses to it all. This is about arguing that Usain Bolt belongs to that most exclusive group – of sportspersons who are considered to be the greatest of all time, across all sports and disciplines.
Let us, for a moment, imagine a Mount Rushmore of sports; the top five sports-persons and athletes of all time; people whose achievements and personalities transcend cultures and sporting disciples; the standard by which everything else after them is measured; the ones who alter the direction of their sport.
While no list of five can ever be unanimous, the number of people who make it to all the lists is very small, and it is an exclusive club indeed. There’s Muhammad Ali, there’s Michael Jordan, there’s Pele – names that are known and recognised the world over.
Usain Bolt is probably the only one in his generation to have all the things to make it to the list. He’s recognised the world over; his name has become synonymous not just with his discipline but the epitome of what the Olympics mean.
Arguments could be made that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo deserve to be in the conversation, because of the expanse and reach of their sport. Shouldn’t Michael Phelps also be as celebrated as Bolt. Aren’t his Olympic achievements even more jaw-dropping than Bolt’s? What about Serena Williams and her 23 Singles Grand Slam Titles? Could Lebron James be part of the conversation? And for that matter, why is our very own Sachin Tendulkar not part of the discussion? By sheer numbers, his achievements on the cricket pitch, and his larger-than-life cult personality, at least in the Indian subcontinent, should make him the most apt candidate, shouldn’t it?
One could name the best and most famous stars of every sport in the world – from baseball to rugby, handball to badminton, volleyball, both indoor and beach, and they’d be all of these amazing humans who are able to scale heights that the rest of us would never be able to.
But very few are able to transcend both language and culture, and be accepted as the embodiment of the sport and all that is great about it; as the personification of greatness, oneness, and as heads-and-shoulders above the rest.
Yes, all these athletes are great sporting personalities; they’ve achieved all that their sports have had to offer and then some. But Usain Bolt exemplifies all of that. His swagger, his appeal to people of different groups, his box-office attraction for those few seconds the world watches with unblinking focus and anticipation to see him destroy competition, to see him perform at different levels is unparalleled.
At the highest level of sports, the difference between the best and the rest is very small; between the first and second almost minute. Bolt is awe and inspiration; he is celebrated and respected because the gap between when he is first and second, the best and the rest, is humongous – almost unbelievable, miraculous.
Tiger Woods, in his heyday, was exactly like that. He was spoken of in the way Bolt is spoken of now. But Tiger Woods faltered and it’s been the saddest story in sports. (Lance Armstrong, too). A very real argument could be made that Sir Donald Bradman was the greatest sportsperson because the gap between him and the batsman with the second highest average of all time was so wide that it has never been equalled, let alone be surpassed. The nature of cricket, however, whereby batting is one of the only two primary skills (wicket-keeping and fielding are secondary), makes it harder to defend that argument.
And Bolt, above everything else, is class and grace. He can run a 100m distance faster than any person in the world, than any human that has ever lived – in recorded history. He is better at something than anyone else in the history of human civilization.