“Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.”
– To An Athlete Dying Young, A.E. Housman
Usain Bolt did not die on Saturday on London. It just felt like it. The greatest sprinter the world has even seen finished a straining third in his last race, the 100-metre final of the 2017 World Track and Field Championships. Two other guys who history will forget made sure his swan song ended on a minor key.
And that smarts.
It was supposed to be different. If Bolt was to lose, at least, it was to have been Canadian André De Grasse who ushered him out. But the Canadian hurt his hamstring and didn’t even race in London. Instead a reformed (?) drug cheat, Justin Gatlin, sent him into retirement. Ick.
It will not feel to Bolt that he has died. Knowing Bolt, it’ll burn for a while. However, his stunning record of gold medals, world championships and media moments will soon comfort him like a balm. And he can count the money he hopefully saved from the hundreds of millions he’s raked in. (Who knows, he may, in 18 months, change his mind and say he’s coming back for the 2020 Summer Olympics.)
He’ll always be the valedictorian in a very exclusive club: the world’s fastest man. There are 25 in recorded modern history. And Bolt is the chairman of the board, which includes Canada’s Donovan Bailey (and with better help, Ben Johnson). Despite the denouement in London, he will not be one of those “runners whom renown outran.”
The temptation to keep it all going is great. In one sense, he’s a beneficiary of all the money in sports these days. In the simon-pure amateur age, a runner could only delay his or her eventual transition to the rest of their lives for so long. You had one, maybe two Olympics. You lived in a shed or hoped you could balance a life and a job. It was a spartan existence.
Spartan is not a description of the life Bolt’s lived since becoming a world champion in his teens. Longevity brought him phenomenal riches. As we can see watching this year’s championships, there are plenty of 30-somethings still pursuing their careers, winning gold medals and cashing huge cheques. If Bolt was of a mind to, he could go for another five or six years. The man who beat him in London, Gatlin, is a spry 35-years-old – and he missed four years to a drug suspension.
But what of the fans who watched in awe as Bolt bragged about his speed and then backed it up with his posing and mugging, his sly Jamaican humour? It’s hard to think of an athlete in any sport who’s left a larger gap behind.
Sure, we haven’t seen the likes of Tiger Woods in golf since he wore his honours out. But a gang of prodigious wannabes such as Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth have eased the loss.
When Roger Federer finally decides to stop embarrassing his juniors, he’ll be followed at the top of the tennis world by the prodigious Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
Bolt stands alone. He defines great in every sense of the word. Not greatness as Rod Black describes it (two good games and strong first half). But the unquestioned immortality of someone like Bolt, who towers over the sport and makes the Olympics relevant. Gold medal winners come and go, but the International Olympic Committee knows what Bolt did for their bottom line.
And fans know what his electrifying performances did for them. There’s something intangible about Bolt, or tennis’s Serena Williams or Federer, that’s not defined by a network TV promo. You can’t BS fans about it. Like a Supreme Court justice once said about pornography, fans know it when they see it.
In the age of spin, we knew. We didn’t have to be told. And despite a third in London, Bolt taught us to trust our eyes and enjoy the show for what it was: something we’ll still be talking about in 20 years.
And that’s worth something, as Housman knew way back in 1896.
“Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grow
It withers quicker than the rose.”
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.