RIO DE JANEIRO — For the eighth time, Usain Bolt took the track for an Olympic final. For the eighth time, he finished with gold.
Bolt easily won the 200-meter dash Thursday night with a time of 19.78 seconds. As the other runners gave chase down the straightaway, they looked almost comical.
There was the 6-foot-5-inch Bolt in his bright yellow singlet several strides ahead of his pursuers and several inches taller than them, too. And while the rest of the field strained for the two medals up for grabs, Bolt let his long strides carry him to the line comfortably ahead.
“There’s no words to explain [what it means] to be eight-time Olympic champion,” said Bolt. “The 200 means a lot more to me and I’ve been enjoying it . . . There’s nothing else I can do, really. I’ve proven to the world that I’m the greatest and this is what I came here for. This is why I say it’s my last Olympics because I can’t prove anything else.”
And even though he remains on top of his sport, Bolt added, “When I retire, that will be it.”
There was more drama sorting out the second- and third-place finishers after the race than there was determining the winner. Canada’s Andre De Grasse took silver in 20.02. Then, France’s Christophe Lemaitre claimed bronze in 20.12 and looked genuinely shocked to be a medal winner. Lemaitre and fourth-place finisher Adam Gemili of Great Britain posted identical times and it took a photo to separate them.
Meanwhile, Bolt exhuberantly celebrated his gold medal. As usual.
Still, watching Bolt never gets old, even if his second victory celebration in Rio looked and sounded a lot like his first. (The selfies with Jamaican fans, the Bob Marley music in the background, the “lightning bolt” pose to cap it all.) Even if several sizable sections in the Olympic Stadium remained empty. Even if a rain-slickened track and light mist in the air made any serious attempt at a world record or fast time unfeasible. His 19.78 was his slowest in an Olympic 200-meter final.
“I wanted to run a faster time,” said Bolt. “I knew it was going to be hard to break the world record. I could tell by my legs. But when I came off the corner, my legs decided, ‘Listen, we’re not going to go any faster,’ I wasn’t fully happy, but I’m happy that I got the gold medal.”
But, again, this is Bolt. At this point, he is the sprinting, smiling example of what an all-time legend looks like. That automatically makes him must-see racing and must-see celebrating. It also means that anything short of a world record leaves him not fully happy with his race.
It’s hard to imagine living eight years, from the 2008 Beijing Olympics until the 2016 Rio Olympics, with that level of expectation and that kind of pressure. And Bolt has not only continually fulfilled expectations or surpassed them, he has done it with a joy rarely seen in sprinters.
We might never see another champion like him. Not only because he now owns three consecutive Olympic gold medals in the 100 and 200. But also because he’s always ready for the biggest moments and the biggest stages. Thursday night proved that again. It’s hard to believe less than a month ago, it was uncertain whether a hamstring injury would jeopardize his pursuit of a triple-triple, three consecutive Olympic gold medals in the 100, 200, and 4 x 100 relay.
Now, barring a dropped baton, Bolt is on the precipice of cementing his legacy in truly spectacular fashion, going nine for nine in Olympic finals. And Bolt is winning at a time when the sport desperately needs him to thrill fans and restore faith in the legitimacy of the competition on the track.
“I’m proving it to the world that you can do it clean,” said Bolt. “With hard work and determination, I’ve made the sport exciting. I’ve made people want to see the sport. I’m putting the sport on a different level.”
But as unprecedented and impressive as his medal collection is, because he does it all while winning easily and smiling for finish-line cameras and samba dancing as he settles into his blocks makes him an even more unique talent. From the moment the runners in the 200 walked onto the track, Bolt was in entertainer mode. He smiled, gave a thumbs up, waved to the crowd. He always seems energized by the fanfare and the fans, not distracted by it.
In the blocks, around the turn and certainly on the straightaway, Bolt looked like a man who had no doubts about the final result. He wasn’t worried about de De Grasse, who gamely chased him in the semifinal or about any other competitor in the 200. He didn’t need to be.
With one race left in Bolt’s Olympic career, De Grasse was asked if he was glad to see him exit or wished he would compete longer.
“A little bit of both,” said De Grasse. “I love competing against him. It’s an honor to be a part of history, of what he’s accomplished in his career. I always like to come away with that. But overall, if his time is up, then I guess a new person has to come in there.”
His time isn’t up yet. One more race remains before the triple-triple becomes reality and Bolt becomes untouchable in track and field history.