He started sprinting as a boy in the parish of Trelawny, tucked deep in Jamaica’s Cockpit Country, a sugar-farming area that was the former stronghold of the Maroons, Jamaica’s 18th century freedom fighters who resisted British slavers. Usain Bolt’s father ordered his rangy son to carry buckets of water, for miles, to their home, which had no running water.
He stopped sprinting, in front of an audience of millions at the Olympics at least, Friday night in Rio, having won the ninth gold medal of his record-shattering career. To close out the Rio Games, which he insists will be his last, Bolt led the Jamaican team to gold in the 4 X 100-m relay in a time of 37.27. The race was tight when Bolt, running the anchor leg, grabbed the baton: the stadium erupted as Bolt exploded ahead of the field to win the third straight gold in the event for the Jamaicans.
Japan ran 37.60 to edge out the favored United States team for silver. The U.S., Jamaica’s longtime rivals in the relay, finished in a time of 37.62. It was enough to win bronze, but the Americans were disqualified after an earlier baton passing error and Canada took their place on the podium.
Bolt has swept the 100-m, 200-m, and 4 X 100-m relays in each of the past three Olympics. He owns world records in all three–having run 9.58 seconds in the 100-m at the 2009 worlds in Berlin, a 19.19 in the 200 at the same competition, and 36.84 with his Jamaican teammates at the 2012 London Olympics.
“I’ve proven to the world I’m the greatest,” says Bolt. “I can’t prove anything else.”
What does Usain Bolt leave behind? Start with reminding the world to care again about the most fundamental of athletic pursuits: moving your legs as fast as possible. With his record running times, Bolt stretched the limits of human achievement, sending physicists scrambling to explain what made him so special––in essence, his longer, stronger legs create more ground force to propel him forward––and ponder the possibility of anyone on the planet ever running faster. It would be an ill-advised bet.
Over the course of his spectacular run, Bolt proved the value of winning with flair. He broke the 100-m world record at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing despite celebrating before the finish line. Then he introduced his Zeus-like victory pose: one arm cocked back like an archer’s, the other pointed toward the sky like an arrow–dubbed “to the world.” He’s flashed the pose, on and off the track, too many times to count. Still, the move turns grown men and women into screaming teens. It’s the modern-day moonwalk.
Two days before Bolt ran the 100-m in Rio, his mother, Jennifer, said what the world was thinking. Track would be “really boring” without him. “I’m always going to bring my charisma to the sport,” says Bolt. “The crowd loves the energy. Hopefully, younger athletes can understand that the sport is looking for people who are full of energy. That’s what gets them going, the hype. They like to be a part of the competition. Not just watching it.”
And in a sport whose champions are too often felled by doping tests, Bolt has shown it’s possible to shatter records while running clean. Indeed, doping lurked over the competition in Rio, as the Russian team was banned because of its state-sponsored program, and American Justin Gatlin, Bolt’s vanquished rival, was booed before the start of the 100-m, thanks to his drug suspension a decade ago. (Jaded track fans don’t forgive easily). No sprinter can be 100% trustworthy: too many have dodged drug tests over the years. But Bolt has said that he could never risk taking performance-enhancing drugs, because he his fellow Jamaicans would boot him out of the country. Should Bolt’s ever be exposed for cheating, it would rank as one of the most traumatic events in sports history.
Bolt ended his Olympic career on a similarly perfect note as Michael Phelps, his only Olympic contemporary in stunning, sustained achievement. Debating who’s the better athlete makes for a fun barroom game. After he won the 200-m in Rio, Bolt was asked to rank himself against Phelps. Bolt smiled, said he expected the query, and didn’t answer, filibustering with Phelps platitudes.
Bolt doesn’t share the same redemption story with Phelps, who was miserable training before the London Olympic and almost quit his sport, then hit a new low with his drunk driving arrest in 2014. He’s avoided off-track controversy; the worst thing he probably ever did, for public consumption, was drive too fast; his car overturned into a ditch back in 2009, and Bolt was lucky to avoid serious injury. Earlier in his career, he battled his own laziness. “I was young,” says Bolt. “It was easy for me in high school. Coming out of high school, going into the professional level, I had to step up to be the best, and I wasn’t ready. I was just enjoying life.”
Pascal Rolling, an executive at Puma––Bolt’s longtime sponsor––once told me that a month before the 2004 Olympics in Athens, “we literally had to fight him every day to get him to the track. I remember him saying, ‘Don’t worry. I’m going to be an Olympic champion.’ I thought, You are f—— crazy. You have no clue.”
Bolt didn’t make it out the 200-m heats in Athens. He finished 8th in Helsinki at the 2005 worlds. He started to work harder before the 2007 world championships in Osaka, where he won silver in the 200. After Japan, Bolt says, “is when it all started.” He had a heart-to-heart with his coach, Glen Mills, and was soon breaking world records.
Where does the sport Bolt has defined for a generation go from here? Perhaps no star, in any sport, will be more difficult to replace. Bolt’s by far the biggest draw in track and field: the Rio Olympic Stadium was packed and hyped on the nights Bolt ran, but eerily quiet when he wasn’t on stage.
“If his time is up,” says Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse, “I guess a new person has to come in there.” De Grasse, 21, emerged in Rio, winning 200-m silver and 100-m bronze. He’s young, and could run faster, and develop more flair. But right now, it’s hard to imagine De Grasse as a worldwide attraction. Plus, 50,000 people chanting “De Grasse! De Grasse!” won’t have the ring of “Bolt! Bolt! Bolt!”
Track’s future will arrive soonest. Here in Rio, however, the whole sport’s soaking up Bolt’s coronation. Soon after American decathlete Ashton Eaton won gold on Thursday night, earning him the title of “world’s best athlete” for a second straight Olympics, he considered himself blessed to share the spotlight with Bolt. “Being in the same era as Usain Bolt, being in the same pages as him,” says Eaton, “is special.”
Bolt, never one to lack confidence, knows he ends his Olympic career with a secure legacy. “I’ve just proven to the world that you can do it clean,” says Bolt. “I’ve made the sport exciting, I’ve made people want to see the sport, and I’ve made people want to watch the sport. I’ve just put the sport on a different level.”