RIO de JANEIRO — After winning the eighth race of his Olympic career, Usain Bolt offered this trenchant observation:
“I don’t need to prove anything else,” he said after Thursday’s men’s 200m. “What else can I do to prove to the world I am the greatest?”
Nothing. Absolutely zero.
As Ashton Eaton, the decathlon champion said, and this goes for all who have had the privilege to bear witness to Bolt’s collection of astonishing turns on the track, said, “It has been an absolute pleasure to compete in the same era as Usain Bolt.”
Even the gods, of some sort, seemed to agree Friday night. A golden full moon lit up the sky over Olympic Stadium as Bolt, in what he has vowed will be his last Olympic competition, led the Jamaican men’s 4x100m relay team to victory, in 37.27 seconds.
It was Bolt’s ninth Olympic gold in nine Olympic finals: a three-pack three-peat of the Olympic 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay. Beijing 2008, London 2012, Rio 2016. All golds.
After Friday night’s relay, he went back to the finish line, in Lane 4, and kissed the blue track. He also posed for pictures with a dude who was carrying a Bolt doll attached to which was a sign that said, on one side, “Happy birthday Bolt” and, on the other, “See you in Japan – Bolt forever,” a reference to the Tokyo 2020 Games.
Bolt, who turns 30 on Sunday, said of Tokyo, “It’s not going to happen,” adding, “I’ve done what I wanted to.”
Bolt has said that track and field — as a sport — needed him to do what he did here. He elaborated Friday night:
“Well, I needed me to win, and the Olympics needed me to win because the sport is going through a lot, and I wanted to help build it back, and that’s what I did. And in the process, I became one of the greatests.”
The American men crossed the line third, in 37.62. But the first pass, Mike Rodgers to Justin Gatlin, was just this much out of the exchange zone, and the U.S. was disqualified. Rodgers and Gatlin both said afterward they thought the pass was legal. Replay showed otherwise.
Japan took second, in 37.6. The Canadians were bumped up to third, 37.64.
The disqualification perpetuates a string that, at the Olympics and world meets, has seen American 4x100m men’s relay teams DQ’d or put up DNF’s — did not finish — since 2008 in Beijing, with just two exceptions: the 2015 World Relays (gold) and 2013 world championships (silver). This string has both generated widespread disbelief and proven seemingly resistant to every well-intentioned effort at change.
The U.S. women, granted an unprecedented do-over in Thursday’s qualifying after a dropped baton was ruled due to an impermissible hit-and-run by the Brazilians, ran Friday night to gold in 41.01: Tianna Bartoletta to Allyson Felix to English Gardner to Tori Bowie.
In Lane One, the inside, where physics says it is toughest — with 41.01 the second-fastest women’s 4x100m relay in Olympic history. Only the winning American 40.82, a world record from London, is faster.
The Jamaicans, anchored by Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, ran 41.36 for silver — third-fastest in Olympic history.
“When there aren’t other circumstances out of our control, we can kind of get the job done,” Gardner said later. “Really well.”
With the relay victory, Felix now has five golds — most ever by any woman in Olympic track and field history.
“I’m sharing with the team, so it’s very special,” she said.
Felix and Bolt are indisputably part of Olympic lore. Each, for instance, left London four years ago with three gold medals and a world record.
Bolt, of course, now has nine Olympic golds. Same as Carl Lewis. Same as the Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, the American swimmer Mark Spitz and the Finnish distance star Paavo Nurmi.
The inevitable question is whether Bolt — and this of course assumes he has competed clean — is the greatest Olympic athlete of all time.
The easy answer: one of them, for sure.
The greatest, though?
As magnificent as he is, it’s logically inconsistent to argue that Bolt is even the greatest track and field athlete in Olympic history.
His world record in the 100m, 9.58 seconds? Not set at the Olympics but at the 2009 world championships. The 200m? Sure, he went a then-record 19.3 in Beijing in 2008. But, again in Berlin, he went 19.19.
Numbers-wise, Lewis has the more accomplished Olympic resume — 10 medals overall, the nine golds and one silver in the 200m in Seoul in 1988 — and don’t think Lewis doesn’t know so. Bolt, too.
Lewis won four straight golds, in the long jump. Al Oerter won four in a row, in the discus.
Now, to compare apples to oranges:
Michael Phelps has 23 golds, three silvers and two bronze medals, a total of 28.
Latynina has 18 medals overall.
Nurmi, at the 1924 Paris Games, set world records in winning two of his golds, the 1500m and the 5000m, with just an hour between the two events.
And then there is the Czech distance star Emil Zatopek. He ‘only” has five Olympic golds. At the 1952 Helsinki Games, Zatopek, widely considered the most innovative if not best runner of the 20th century, won the 5000m, 10,000m and marathon — that marathon his first-ever.
For his part, Bolt is “legend,” what he called himself after his three victories four years ago in London.
Or “immortal,” his own suggestion about where he might rank if he went three-for-three here.
Which he did — winning the 100m in 9.81, the 200m on a wet track in 19.78 and, finally, anchoring the relay.
It’s not as if the Americans didn’t have the plan and the know-how to defeat Bolt and the Jamaicans.
At those 2015 World Relays, a U.S. team, anchored by Ryan Bailey, ran 37.38 for the win. Afterward, Bailey memorably made a throat-slash gesture — an indication that he, for sure, did not fear the vaunted Bolt or the Jamaicans.
That team: Mike Rodgers, Justin Gatlin, Tyson Gay and Bailey.
The same first three lined it up Friday for the Americans. Trayvon Bromell drew the anchor.
The Jamaican four Friday night: Asafa Powell, Yohan Blake, Nickel Ashmeade, Bolt.
As that 2015 relay proved, the only way to beat the green-and-gold Jamaican team is to build up such a large lead by the fourth and final leg that no one could overcome it.
Not even Bolt.
That hardly happened Friday. The race was more or less even when the stick got around the final turn to Bolt.
He just ran away with it.
“Track and field is hard. It has been a long journey,” he said later, reflecting on his extraordinary career. “It has been draining. It has been stressful. So, I’m happy. I have relief it’s over.”
Relief — or joy? “Both. It’s a mixed feeling.”
The next Usain Bolt? Maybe never. Or, as Eaton said, maybe, just maybe.
“If anything,” Eaton said, referring to Bolt, “he has provided a platform for all the other young aspiring athletes to launch from,” adding, “In the years to come, I think we’ll see a lot of athletes who were inspired by Usain Bolt.”
When he was just 8 years old, Ashton Eaton said, the sprinter Michael Johnson had inspired him. He then said:
“Give it a decade.”