It’s all about knowing how to win

On the big stage, under the massive burden of expectation and the pressure of a race with strong rivals, nobody thrives like Usain Bolt, writes Shreedutta Chidananda.

Usain Bolt arrived in Beijing — the site of his glorious, epochal triumph seven years ago — needing to remind the world that he was still king. He departed crown intact and competition in tatters. He also left the world looking silly for ever doubting his status as the reigning monarch. At the 2015 IAAF World Championships, Bolt won the men’s 100m and 200m titles and also anchored Jamaica to victory in the 4x100m relay. It was his third clean sweep of the sprint titles at the World Championships (after 2009 and 2013) and took his tally of gold medals at the biennial event to 11.

“It’s always a good way to end a championships like that,” he said afterwards. “It’s pretty much one of my best (results) because of what I’ve been through this season, the doubts that people have had, just everything. I came here and executed to the best of my ability and got three gold medals so I’m happy about that.”

Bolt made it all look easy in the finals, but there was more than a shadow of doubt over his ability to defend his title. The 29-year-old had endured a miserable 2015, when he ran the 100m in competition only on two days and a pelvic injury meant his season didn’t properly start until July. In the whole of 2014, again blighted by injury, he had run only two races. In the other corner, there was Justin Gatlin, the in-form athlete leading up to the World Championships. He went into the final of the 100m at the Bird’s Nest Stadium with a 28-race unbeaten streak. Before they lined up, five of the fastest 100m times in 2015 belonged to Gatlin, with the best of them a 9.74 in Doha in May. In contrast, Bolt, who had stumbled in the semifinals and advanced to the final by the skin of his teeth, had managed a disappointing season’s best of 9.87, at the Anniversary Games in London in July.

On the start line, the Jamaican tried to be his usual self, smoothing his hair back and playing peekaboo with the camera, but the tension was writ large on his face. Ten seconds after the starting gun went, though, all that nervousness had been obliterated. Bolt soared to victory in 9.79 and the world revelled in his triumph, one that was hailed as a triumph for all athletics.

There is something to be said for direct competition. On the big stage, under the massive burden of expectation and the pressure of a race with strong rivals, nobody thrives like Bolt. He simply knows how to win races.

“I’m amazed,” Michael Johnson told the BBC. “This is Usain Bolt’s best race ever. He knew it was a completely different set of circumstances for him. He’ll be most proud of this win without a doubt. It’s not about technique, it’s about running for your life and he’s got the talent to be able to do that.”

Full of confidence from that win, Bolt did even better in the 200m, running his fifth fastest time. Again, before the start of the final, three of the top four 200m times in 2015 were Gatlin’s, his 19.57 at the U.S. athletics championships in June making him the fifth fastest man in history over the distance. In the face of stern examination, Gatlin crumbled again.

“You can’t have doubts,” Bolt said after the relay. “The moment you have doubts creeping in you shouldn’t run. I know what I want coming here. My coach (Glen Mills) is always confident in me and I’m confident in him so as long as we work as a team, I have no worry I’ll ever be defeated. I came out here and proved everybody that you can never call Usain Bolt out. I’m a champion and I show up when it matters.”

With his six Olympic and 11 World Championship gold medals and his two near-unassailable world records, there is no doubting that Bolt is the greatest sprinter of all time. No other sprinter has been so dominant for so long, leave alone in such enthralling fashion. The question of whether he is the greatest track and field athlete of all time is a moot one, for it is impossible to compare across disciplines. Carl Lewis won nine Olympic gold medals between 1984 and 1996, mastering both the long jump and the 100m dash in a manner unthinkable today.

Bolt is not exactly modest but his proclamations of greatness never feel arrogant or out of place. They are statements of fact and add to his irresistible charm. In an interview to Runner’s World earlier this summer, Bolt laid out his goals. “In the past we’ve sometimes focused on the clock and getting records, other times it has been on medals. Now it’s all about securing my legacy,” he said. “I’m already the greatest sprinter of all time, but if I continue to win golds, I could be the greatest athlete of all time. Someone may come along one day and break one of my records, but to beat my legacy they have to beat my whole body of work. So the more I can win, the greater that gets and the harder it will be to overshadow. That’s what’s getting me out of bed now.”

The case for Bolt being the greatest athlete in the history of all sport has grown stronger after Beijing. The comparisons with Muhammad Ali are inevitable — the swagger, the aura, the ability to induce an electric thrill. “Yes, what we have to concede, and what I believe is that I don’t think any athlete, any sportsman or woman since Muhammad Ali has captured the public imagination and propelled their sport as quickly and as far as Usain Bolt has,” Sebastian Coe, the new IAAF President, admitted on the last day of the World Championships.

Lionel Messi, Pele, Michael Phelps, Roger Federer — there is no method to put one above the other. What is not in doubt, though, is that there will never be another like Bolt.