RIO DE JANEIRO – People were quick to crown Michael Phelps as the greatest Olympian of all time after he bid a triumphant farewell to swimming here by winning five more gold medals and bringing his career medal total to a record 28-23 gold.
The record should last forever. If Phelps were a country, he’d be 38th on the all-time gold medal list. He should donate one to Mauritius, Moldova, Macedonia or any of the 44 nations who have never won a summer gold.
But it’s not so clear cut, is it? There’s no disputing Phelps’ greatness, but he has more chances to win medals than athletes in other sports. Fans of track and field, who believe excellence in their sport is more difficult to sustain, could make a strong case for Usain Bolt.
After all, when we talk about the world’s fastest human, we’re not talking about the water, but who is fastest on two legs, on land. And Sunday night, the amazing Bolt proved once again for sheer speed, he has no peer.
Bolt won the 100-meter dash in 9.81 seconds, becoming the first man or woman to win the event in three straight Olympics. He did it despite a poor start that saw him leave the blocks in last place, only to surge up the track and run down Justin Gatlin in the final 25 meters.
While there’s a debate over greatest Olympian, there’s no question who is the greatest showman. Bolt had fans in Olympic Stadium chanting his name all night. As always, he soaked up the attention and delivered in the big moment.
Bolt cruised to victory in his semifinal, downshifting over the last 30 meters or so and looking to his left and right as he crossed the line. He showed no sign of a hamstring that had caused him to pull out of the Jamaican trials.
There is nothing like the buildup to an Olympic 100 final. It was more dramatic because of what was at stake for Bolt, who was hoping to achieve a third straight Olympic “triple triple” - winning the 100 and 200 and anchoring Jamaica’s 4x100 relay to gold.
The fans chanted “Bolt! Bolt! Bolt!” when he was introduced for the 9:25 p.m. final. People held up cellphones to record the moment. Bolt practiced his start and, 40 meters up the track, turned and waved to fans on both sides of the stadium.
Imagine that, two minutes before the final, Bolt was playing to his audience. With dramatic music playing, the runners settled into their blocks – Bolt in Lane 6, Gatlin in Lane 4, Bolt’s countryman Yohan Blake in 9.
Then came the collective hush that falls over a crowd before the Olympic 100. A few fans muttered “Sssshhhh!” Then they were off, with Bolt trailing the field.
Then, with about a third of the race to go, Bolt made his signature surge through the pack, the one that makes his surname so fitting. He bolted ahead, passed Gatlin and took time to look the American’s way as he crossed the finish line in a relatively slow 9.81 (his world record is 9.58, his Olympic mark 9.63).
“I’m really happy, but I expected to go faster,” Bolt said. “With the turnaround time between the semifinal and final, we normally have two hours, but we had one hour, 20 minutes. It was challenging. But I’m just happy that I won and that’s the key thing.”
Gatlin, who won gold in 2004 before missing Beijing with a drug suspension, had joked that Bolt needed a medical exemption for Rio. Bolt said that sort of teasing from the “Old Man,” as he calls Gatlin, only makes him run faster.
At 34, Gatlin was trying to become the oldest medalist ever in the 100 meters and the first to regain the title. He accomplished the former by winning silver.
But it was Bolt who owned the moment, making one of his playful, exuberant victory laps. He pumped his fist, then grabbed a stuffed yellow Olympic mascot and carried it around the track.
Funny how the world’s fastest human takes the slowest victory lap. But no one loves it more. He grabbed a Jamaican flag, put on a yellow cap, went over to slap hands with Jamaican fans.
Bob Marley’s song “Jammin’ ” played over the loudspeakers as Bolt made his way around. He walked beside 100-meter course when he won gold and the crowd started another chant of “Bolt! Bolt! Bolt!”
He walked to the end of the stadium beyond the finish line and passed his shoes and the mascot into the stands. Then Bolt turned and, after a dramatic pause, made his trademark “Lightning Bolt” pose for the crowd, which went wild.
Bolt has two more chances to strike the pose. Next Friday, two days before his 30th birthday, he’ll anchor Jamaica’s 4-by-100 meter relay, which also won gold in Beijing and London.
By becoming the first to win three straight golds in the 100 (Carl Lewis won two), Bolt would gather support as the best Olympian ever. And if track and field’s greatest star wins all three races again, you can expect the subject to be prominent in his final news conference.
Bolt didn’t simply win those golds, he did it in spectacular fashion. In Beijing, he broke the world record in all three events. In the 100, he ran a stunning 9.69, which would have been faster if he hadn’t slowed down to look behind him before the finish.
Phelps upstaged him in Beijing by winning eight golds to break Mark Spitz’s record, the morning after Bolt won the 100. Their careers have been entwined ever since.
Bolt has not had not been beaten at 100 meters since 2007. The only blemish is a disqualification for a false start at the 2011 Worlds. He came back to win triple gold for Jamaica at the 2013 and 2015 World Championships, giving him a record 11 world titles.
Early this year, Bolt said his coach told him he was fit enough to keep going and compete at the 2020 Games in Japan. But he later confirmed this will be his final Olympics.
Bolt’s favorite race is actually the 200. He says he would like to run it in under 19 seconds. In any event, he will be a solid favorite in the 200 and the 4x100 relay. If he wins two more, he’ll have nine gold medals in nine races over three years.
Then the debate would rage in earnest. But on an amazing Sunday night, we were reminded that as an Olympic athlete and showman, Bolt has no equal.