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Usain Bolt cements his legacy among the greats in sports history

Beneath Olympic Stadium, after the roars of the crowd subsided, three of the fastest men on earth took their turns with the media. One by one, they spoke from the other side of a waist-high metal barrier, close enough to touch, and the inevitability of Usain Bolt hit home.

First came the bronze-medal winner in the 200-meter dash, Christophe Lemaitre of France. At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, Lemaitre, 26, has bulging calves and thighs but a shallow chest and narrow biceps. Then came silver medalist Andre De Grasse of Canada, at 5-foot-9, 154 pounds and just 21 years old, with the upper body of a teenager.

Enter Bolt.

“Massive” is a favorite slang term in Bolt’s native Jamaica. It describes both his presence — pantomiming a karate kick to the cameras, filling the room with his booming baritone — and his person. Watching him stand there — at 6-foot-5 and 207 pounds, with wide shoulders, carved muscles, narrow waist and tapered legs — the idea of any other athlete winning the 200-meter gold medal on Thursday night seemed preposterous.

Bolt, who turns 30 on Sunday, is for all time a thoroughbred among colts, Formula 1 alongside go-karts. He’s too powerful to lose, too confident and, in his final Olympics, too motivated. His victory in the 200 gave him eight Olympic golds. He has won three straight in each of the 100 and 200. The final step for the once-unimaginable “triple-triple” is gold in the 4×100-meter relay on Friday night.

Bolt has spoken so many times about wanting to stand among the giants of all sports — Muhammad Ali, Pele, Michael Jordan — not just track. He has been working toward cementing his legend in Rio since the 2012 London Games. The relay is not entirely within his control, so Bolt’s desired status is finally secure. On Thursday, however, it had yet to sink in.

“When I’m at home, relaxing by myself, I might get a little emotional,” he said. “Right now, I’m just happy I got it done.”

It didn’t get done with size alone. Despite his admitted dislike of training, Bolt’s pursuit of athletic immortality pushed him to fully prepare for Rio. In March, I watched him blast through a set of 10 consecutive 200s on his Jamaica practice track, then collapse in exhaustion. His performances here, in his final Olympics, made it clear Bolt was primed for victory — unlike in last year’s world championships, which he won anyway.

A prepared Bolt is unbeatable. All due respect to Lemaitre and De Grasse, but Bolt had no human competition in the 200. His only opponent was the clock. He badly wanted to lower his own world record of 19.19, set in 2009. In the months before Rio, he had even spoken of running under 19 seconds.

Usain Bolt saved the smiles and the memes for his postrace celebration in the arms of ecstatic Jamaican fans.

Usain Bolt saved the smiles and the memes for his postrace celebration in the arms of ecstatic Jamaican fans.

Ryan Pierse/Getty Images


Bolt started well at the gun, quickly made up the stagger and roared out of the turn well in front. The effort on his face showed there would be no grinning, sideways glances in this race, no finger wags, no memes. He ran through the finish, losing his form a bit in the final meters, and was clocked in 19.78 seconds — not even among his 10 fastest times.

There was a misty rain during the race, but Bolt said the way De Grasse pushed him in the semifinal was more of a factor.

“I was disappointed,” he confessed. “I’m always happy to win, but I was disappointed. I wanted to run faster. Even though I didn’t break the world record, I wanted to run a little bit faster. But thanks to De Grasse in the semifinal, my legs were a little bit tired. Just one of those things. I’m getting older, I don’t recover like I usually do.

“The key thing is that I won. That’s what I came here for.”

He recovers enough to be dominant. The youngster De Grasse pushed Bolt until the finish line in the semifinal and still finished two meters behind Bolt in the final, in 20.02.

In the years to come, none of the millions around the world who watched Thursday’s race will complain about Bolt’s time. They will remember a huge man powering around the curve, down the homestretch and into history as the greatest sprinter ever.

This story is featured on ESPN.com

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.