For all of the great things that Usain Bolt has been called—The Lightning Bolt, the fastest man alive, inhuman—one thing no one has accused him of is being humble.
Rightfully so. Bolt has numerously stated that he is a “legend” and proclaimed himself the greatest athlete of all time. But at the heart of his supreme confidence that might make PR agents uncomfortable is an authentic energy that electrified Jamaica on tracks over the past decade.
Even as an international star, Bolt never played games with the public. He told us exactly what he wanted to do—become the greatest, and just how confident he was that he could do it—very. He danced around the track with the Jamaican flag proudly held in his hands after each victory.
His lifestyle might remind you of some of his favorite reggae songs—empowering, free and high-energy. He was a rebellious answer to the quiet-natured culture of track stars, a mega-star that embraced the spotlight and the interactions with the people of his nation. A nation that, in the wake of some of the world’s worst violence, could use a figure of hope.
As a sharp contrast to the ever-serious, over-worked sweat machines like Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps, it only makes sense that the final test of Usain Bolt’s greatness would be a different kind of challenge.
It came this past week, when Bolt lost one of the closest 100 meters races ever at the World Championships to, of all people, 35 year old Justin Gatlin.
When the results showed up on the scoreboard, the crowd was not pleased. Maybe partly because of Gatlin’s record of performance enhancing drug use, but probably more because of Bolt’s popularity; the surprising finish was met with a loud chorus of boos and dismay.
That’s when Bolt, who has already proven himself to be the rare athlete that does what he wants, even in the spotlight, walked over to Gatlin. His smile was as big as ever. He reached over to Gatlin, gave him a hug, and whispered what looked like words of encouragement into the American’s ear. Just like that, the boos began to dissipate.
Bolt might as well have won the race.
There aren’t many great athletes who lose a race to a long-time rival, smile about it, and we actually believe it. But that is what the greatness of Usain Bolt was always about. The message being this: It’s OK to believe in yourself, to be happy about who you are.
When it comes to all-time greats, we don’t generally reminisce on the final stage of their careers for good reasons. Most of us would rather not pay much attention to Michael Jordan’s middling stint with the Wizards or Pele’s tenure with the New York Cosmos.
With Bolt, I wonder if things might play out differently. What moment could better define Usain Bolt than a crowd so passionate that they actually booed the gold medal victor, and then Bolt gracefully quieting them down with a friendly hug?
Not long after, of course, came an even more devastating failure—Bolt tore his hamstring during the 4×100 relay, immediately collapsing onto the track. Perhaps predictably, if you know Bolt, he rejected the wheelchair that was offered him and made his way across the finish line with support of his teammates.
This was probably the only time we have seen the greatest runner of all time without a smile on his face. He looked disgruntled, maybe even angry, as he headed back to the locker room. Soon, though, he was greeting his fans again—fans that held up signs with his name on them.
Usain Bolt might not be considered a “class act” or remembered for any kind of modesty. But he is undoubtedly admired by just about everyone who got to watch him run, everyone who got to watch him break expectations of all kinds over and over again.
Perhaps somehow, Bolt was able to accomplish something even greater than just a 9.58 100m time. He created the exhilarating feeling among his fans that he was running for them.