The good news is that Usain Bolt is getting slower. The bad news is that he is still miles faster than everyone else.
The Jamaican sprinter won his third straight 100-m title in Rio Sunday night, cruising to a comfortable victory in a season’s best 9.81 seconds. Justin Gatlin of the United States took silver in 9.89. And Canada’s Andre De Grasse came third with a new personal best of 9.91 seconds. His bronze is Canada’s 13th medal of the 2016 Olympics, and the first from a male athlete. It’s also the country’s first sprinting podium since Donovan Bailey won gold 20 years ago in Atlanta.
Bolt, who is now one-third of the way to his stated goal—a third straight sweep of gold in the 100-m, 200-m and 4 x 100-m relay—was happy in victory, and if you believe him, maybe even a little bit relieved.
“I never knew how nervous I was until I actually started competing,” he said. “For me it’s big. To do this three times is a big deal. No one has done it, or even attempted it.”
“Hopefully the dream won’t stop,” he added. “It’s a good dream, cause they never catch me.”
Bolt felt the love at Olympic Stadium, receiving loud cheers and wild applause and returned it in kind, pointing and waving at the Brazilian fans, mugging for the TV cameras, and flashing a wide smile. It was a stark contrast to Gatlin’s reception: pro-wrestling level jeers and boos from a crowd that was clearly making a statement about the two doping suspensions in the American’s past. De Grasse, just 21 years old and running in his first Olympics, found his welcome somewhere in the middle.
As is his habit, Bolt was last to settle in the blocks, joking around until the last possible moment. He crossed himself and pointed to the heavens, then he got down to business. The race wasn’t close. By the 50-m mark, the Jamaican great was clearly taking over. And then he turned on the jets and left Gatlin and De Grasse to fight for the leftovers.
It was another dominant performance, though not as soul-crushing as his 9.69 victory in Beijing, or his 9.63 in London, or the world record 9.58 he delivered in Berlin in August 2008, a time that not even he has come close to touching in any race since.
“I feel like it was a decent race for me. I got a personal best,” De Grasse said after finishing a victory lap with a Canadian flag draped around his shoulder. “I saw Bolt go at 70 to 80 m and I tried to go with him, but he just had that extra gear. I knew that I was in contention for a silver medal and I just tried to lean at the line. Fortunately, I came up with bronze.”
There had been questions about Bolt’s fitness. In late June, he was a last-minute scratch from the 100-m final at the Jamaican Olympic trials, after he reportedly suffered a small hamstring tear. When he returned to racing a month later in London, he only ran the 200-m. But there’s no doubt he’s healthy now.
De Grasse baited the bear after finishing .03 faster than Bolt in their heats and qualifying third overall, one spot above the Jamaican superstar. “I hear he’s not in the best of shape,” he told reporters on Saturday. “I feel like this is a good chance for me to take him down.”
But in their semifinal Sunday, running in adjacent lanes, Bolt delivered a season’s best 9.86 and looked like he could still go faster as he crossed the line, turned his head and flashed a wide grin at the man who would take his throne. De Grasse came second, a half-stride behind.
After the final, De Grasse acknowledged that he’s not quite ready to beat the best there ever was. “As you see, he’s just a different beast,” he said of Bolt. “He’s a different animal. I just know that I have to work a lot harder if I want to beat him next year.”
The 29-year-old Bolt clearly has a soft-spot for the young Canadian. After the race, he hugged and congratulated him on the track, telling De Grasse that he had warned his teammate Yohan Blake to watch out for him. Later, in a TV interview, Bolt suggested that the kid from Markham, Ont., might be the one to follow him as Olympic champion.
De Grasse, however, isn’t getting a swelled head. “I kind of don’t listen to what he says. He’s always joking around. So I don’t pay attention.”
For now, Bolt stands alone in the world of sports. Not just because of what he does, but for the way he does it, with unbridled joy, a sense of mischief and above all, panache. He is a walking, talking media event. At his welcome to Rio press conference last week he took the stage with some scantily clad women and danced the samba. Four years ago, he celebrated his London victory with a meal of chicken McNuggets and by posting a photo of himself and three leggy members of the Swedish handball team in his bedroom. He had a million Twitter followers back then. Today, he has 4.11 million, even though he doesn’t follow back. There are just 84 people in his select feed, including his sponsors, several players from Manchester United (his favourite football team), Kobe Bryant, two former Miss Jamaicas and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.
As has become his trademark, Bolt’s victory celebration was epic and virtually endless. He shook hands, signed autographs, posed for a selfie with Canada’s Brianne Theisen-Eaton and the other women’s heptathlon medalists, and carried around a large stuffed animal version of Vinicius, the Rio mascot. Then he stopped and chatted into every microphone and camera he could find.
“Somebody said I can be immortal,” he told one network. “Two more medals to go and I can sign off. Immortal.”
But when you have this much fun winning gold, why stop at a three-peat?