MAN OF THE PEOPLE: Athletics fans celebrate with Bolt after another victory
WHAT DEFINES Usain Bolt’s legacy both in sport and beyond? The man himself was in no doubt as he worked his way towards another three Olympic gold medals in Rio
He said: “I am trying to be one of the greatest, to be among [Muhammad] Ali and Pele. I hope after these Games I will be in that bracket.
“I don’t need to prove anything else. What else can I do to prove I’m the greatest?”
The Ali and Pele tropes have been trotted out since Bolt retained his Olympic titles in London four years ago. Here The Voice of Sport considers what his legacy to world sport and Jamaica is built upon.
No athlete has done more in recent years to restore the reputation of clean athletics, dragging the sport from the spectre of doping with each clean performance.
His Olympic exploits stand up to the best athletes. Bolt’s 4x100m relay gold in Rio equalled the exploits of Finnish long distance legend Paavo Nurmi and US superstar Carl Lewis, who each managed nine Olympic golds.
Beyond medals, Bolt currently has nine of the 30 fastest 100m times in history – and the other 21 were posted by athletes who tested positive for banned substances at some stage. He can also lay claim to 13 of the top 20 200m times and his world records in both events obliterated the previous marks.
His unique physicality also sets him apart. Bolt is effectively a short man in a tall man’s body with fast-twitch muscles contained within his 6ft 5in frame. His height may hinder his starts but his ability to complete the 100m in 41 strides compared to his rivals’ 45 ensures he crosses the line first whenever he is on song.
There were spells when compatriots Asafa Powell and Yohan Blake challenged his supremacy, Tyson Gay too, but barring attempts to stoke his rivalry with Justin Gatlin, Bolt has not had a consistent and credible rival during his eight years at the top.
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His winning times in Rio were neither particularly fast nor unassailable yet he seemed to beat his opponents into submission with the sheer force of his personality.
Athletic meets sell out on the back of Bolt’s box office appeal because he has done so much to make track exciting by smashing world records with a playful insouciance.
He emerged on the world stage just as athletics was coming to terms with the BALCO scandal and positive doping tests for Gatlin, Tim Montgomery, Marion Jones.
As further positive tests came to light for Gay, across Russia and beyond, the sport desperately needed the man from Sherwood Content.
Bolt puts bums on seats and organisers know this. Crowds love Bolt’s showmanship, opponents welcome how his presence boosts their own earnings, and he enjoys playing up to it when the camera rolls.
He shares Ali’s ability to psychologically dominate opponents and while he has never shared the boxing legend’s capacity for word play, Rio illustrated that a stadium atmosphere, even at an Olympics, depends on his presence.
Bolt broke the 100m world record in only his fifth senior race at the distance and the 2008 Beijing Olympics represented his first international competition as a 100m sprinter.
The world record was smashed again at the Bird’s Nest and still he eased up as he approached the finish line. It was also noted that his shoelaces were untied. These things just did not happen before Bolt.
Here was a seemingly maverick talent who smiled his way across the line while others strained every sinew and the public loved him for it. The most beloved greats, from Ali to Lionel Messi via Roger Federer, look effortless as they dazzle.
His world records are likely to stand for years and even if they were surpassed the athlete will need a magnetic personality to generate the same affection as Bolt.
Yet far from being a happy accident, Bolt’s brilliance demonstrates how he curbed his youthful excesses to dedicate himself to athletics. Sprinting world records do not tumble serendipitously in modern sport and the transformation started when he teamed up with his coach Glen Mills in 2005.
He has also put his profile to good use. Bolt's charity work includes the Small Steps Projects, which helps people living on landfill sites, as well his own Usain Bolt Foundation, which aids the social and cultural development of Jamaican children.
When Barack Obama visited Jamaica last year he insisted upon meeting Bolt and striking the athlete’s familiar ‘Lightning Bolt’ pose. Bolt is undoubtedly the most famous Jamaican since Bob Marley thrust himself into the world’s consciousness with his 1977 album Exodus.
Bolt has raised Jamaica’s profile on the world stage and the world united in delight as he took on and defeated the previously dominant Americans. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Melaine Walker and Veronica Campbell-Brown also claimed golds in Beijing but there was no doubt that Bolt took top billing for his first hat-trick.
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His burgeoning national reputation was boosted when he eschewed scholarships from American colleges after the 2004 Olympics to stay at the University of Technology in Kingston with its comparatively modest resources.
To this day he also requests that his ads are filmed in Jamaica and employ local people whenever possible.
The nation looked on proudly as the likes of John Barnes and Donovan Bailey excelled for other countries but Bolt’s victories are celebrated with a delirium that only the green, black and gold can evoke. Jamaica shares him with the world but he remains distinctly Jamaican.
Post-Beijing, Bolt was made a Commander of the Order of Distinction and in 2009, aged 23, he became the youngest citizen to have the Order of Jamaica conferred upon him.
Yet public recognition has not spared him from the old/new-money divide that still exists in Jamaica. His move to the affluent, gated neighbourhoods of Norbrook in Kingston sparked complaints from Sean Paul’s wife Jodi Stewart. The couple lived next door and she complained about Bolt’s allegedly antisocial behaviour.
She subsequently apologised but her comments demonstrated that the intolerant attitudes that greeted Marley’s move to 56 Hope Road in uptown Kingston still have roots in Jamaican society.
Beyond this, British academic and broadcaster Robert Beckford commented in 2012 on the socio-economic contradiction at the heart of Bolt’s success. He told The Guardian: “On one hand, he represents the best Jamaica can do in terms of using natural talent married with hard work and discipline and focus to be the best in the world.
“One the other hand he represents a failure of post-slavery societies to develop their economic base and cultural reach beyond sports to make this kind of achievement less important.”
Those are forces beyond Bolt’s control and so is what happens beyond his swansong at the 2017 World Championships in London. But his legacy is secure.
DINING AT THE TOP TABLE
The wider skill sets of a Muhammad Ali or a Pele may give them the edge on Bolt, but he had earned his place at the top table long before Rio.
The last word must be his: “Someone at a press conference last year said if I win these three gold medals, I will be immortal. And I kind of liked it. So I’m going to run with that: immortal.”