I’ll never forget where I was and what I was doing when I saw the fastest man in human history overwhelmingly prove his right to call himself that. I’m not a huge fan of the man personally, I find his personality a big turnoff, and like many sprinters throughout history-and indeed high-profile athletes in general-he has an ego a mile wide, but even so, his achievement in that one beautiful, literally golden moment was so impressive and objectively pure that it didn’t really matter.
Usain Bolt, on that one very special night in London, England, at the 2012 Summer Olympics, became the first man in modern Olympic history to win both sprint finals in back-to-back Olympics and simultaneously became the fastest man who ever lived. As though that were not impressive enough, his two Jamaican teammates finished with silver and bronze medals, meaning that he was not only a huge individual performer but also an inspiration to his teammates which helped them to beat out excellent runners from the best athletic nation in the world; namely, the United States of America. Jamaica’s clean sweep in that 200 meter final was truly something to behold. To put an exclamation point on all of that, the Jamaican team-with Bolt as its anchor-would dramatically win the 4 x 100 meter relay later in the Games, meaning that Bolt achieved gold medals in all three of his London events, just as he had done four years earlier in Beijing, China, at the 2008 Games. It was hard to tell as the London Games finished which was more golden, the yellow on his nation’s uniforms or the shiny purity of the six gold medals he had achieved in the past two Olympics in his three events. As I write these words celebrating his achievements, I can honestly say that, for all the times he has taken the track, Usain Bolt has never finished lower than first place in an Olympic final. Wow. Just wow.
Now for something that makes Bolt’s accomplishments even more special, although it might not seem that way at first. I really am not fond of Bolt as a public persona. He is arrogant, brash, self-absorbed, fond of feuds. Even during this year’s Olympic Games he had a high-profile media feud with the legendary American track and field sprinter and long jumper Carl Lewis. Bolt even went so far as to say he had no respect whatsoever for Lewis because of Lewis saying he felt Bolt came from a country, Jamaica, whose national doping testing standards were not nearly as high as those of other countries like America. Following his back-to-back wins in the 100 meters and 200 meters this August, Bolt declared himself the fastest man alive, a living legend, the greatest athlete to ever live, a huge winner over his doubters, etc. etc., even prompting the lovable NBC sports anchor Bob Costas to playfully make fun of him on the air for his obvious conceit. It has also been revealed that Bolt broke up with his long-time girlfriend to focus on the Olympics, which has not helped his public image. In short, Bolt is an exhausting personality who comes across as exceptionally self-centered and self-praising compared to other athletes, even flashy sprinter personalities like Lewis, who won the long jump four Olympics in a row a couple of decades back and who would have won both sprint finals in back-to-back Olympics had it not been for an unfortunate silver medal at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea. Indeed, that was Lewis’s only non-gold medal in his entire Olympic career, out of a total of 10 career medals.
All that being said, Bolt sure is fun to watch, and one has to wonder: could the fastest man in human history, the greatest athlete to ever live (if he really is, which I don’t agree with by any stretch of the imagination), be so successful at his individual and team pursuits and exploits if he weren’t so confident and indeed cocky? I have to say, as much as I prize humility and honor, probably not. He needs that swagger, he needs that strut, in order to stay loose and proud and confident, something more than one sports commentator other than Costas has picked up on, and it has sure worked in the past two Summer Olympics in ways that no one, perhaps even Bolt himself, could ever have imagined. Part of me would love to see him come back in four years for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, just to see him finally get beaten in an Olympic final, while part of me-as a former competitive runner myself, and a lover of history-just wants to watch him return to win against all odds yet again and, despite his annoyingly abrasive personality, shut everyone up by claiming all golds one more time, perhaps the last time in his incredible track and field career. For me Usain Bolt is like many of the great athletes and indeed artists of history: I don’t have to like them off the field or away from their art, but when it comes to the miraculous purity of their craft, it doesn’t really matter. Until someone knocks him off the podium when it really counts, he remains numero uno.