My Sportsman: Usain Bolt
On the biggest stages, Bolt has transcended the scoreboard and stopwatch
Recovered from back injuries, he owned the totality of the London Olympics
He's now a rare athlete whose name connotes greatness beyond description
Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. Please vote for your Inspiring Performer, Photo of The Year, and Moment of The Year at our Facebook page.
Put aside for a moment that in 2012, Usain Bolt solidified his standing as the greatest sprinter in history by winning three gold medals at the London Olympics, matching the three that he had won four years earlier in Beijing.
Forget that Bolt became the first man in history to win the 100- and 200-meters at consecutive Olympics, and never mind that he is tangibly the fastest man ever to walk the earth, having set world records in the 100m (9.58 seconds in 2009) and 200m (19.19 seconds, also in '09), and just to demonstrate that his competitors are not even close, the three fastest times ever in the 100.
Ignore for now the fact that he has calculably evolved his sport, the rarest of purely athletic achievements, and in stride with that, kept track and field globally relevant. Place all of this on hold.
Because Bolt has done something even more remarkable than any of these things (though comprised in some part by all of them): He has become presumptively disconnected from the act of winning or losing a footrace.
It is not the fact of Bolt's victories that defines his greatness; those victories are a given (though only in mythology, not in reality, because he does occasionally lose, just not on the biggest stages when the most people are watching). He has transcended the scoreboard and the stopwatch.
Bolt's races are not competitions -- they are performances that must be witnessed and shared and felt, historical moments of emotional -- almost spiritual -- resonance. As many a cold-blooded journalist uttered on the first Sunday in August in London: I'm going to see Bolt tonight. Not the 100 meters. Not the signature athletic event of the entire Games. Not the eight fastest runners in the world, lined up across the track, with a gold medal at stake. Just Bolt. Surely millions of fans felt precisely the same way; organizers could have filled the Olympic Stadium 100 times on the night of the 100-meter final.
The list of modern, worldwide athletes who have attained a similar stature, who must be witnessed for the sheer purpose of having been witnessed and whose names connote a greatness beyond mere description, is glaringly exclusive: Jordan. Pele. Ali. Tiger (at one time). Lance (at one time). Beckham. Messi, as Bolt's peer in history. The options run dry in short order. While Michael Phelps, Gabby Douglas and LeBron James might have occupied more U.S. television time from London, and while British athletes Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah may have received a greater home country embrace, it was Bolt who owned the totality of the Olympic Games. For attaining such a power as this, for taking the act of running fast and transforming it into a revival experience, Bolt should be Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year.
If you prefer to traffic in the athletic mainstream, Bolt's 2012 was no less accomplished. After rebranding an entire sport as his own in 2008 and 2009, he struggled with back injuries throughout 2010 and well into 2011, when he also false-started out of the 100 meters at the World Championships (which was won by Jamaican countryman Yohan Blake). Bolt ran fast twice in the spring of '12, but then was beaten by Blake in both the 100 and 200 at the Jamaican Olympic Trials in late June. While the world awaited Bolt 2.0 in London, he was nursing his sore back and questioning himself.
Barely a month later he won the Olympic 100m in 9.63 seconds, the second-fastest time in history; and then took the 200 in 19.32, matching Michael Johnson's then-transcendent winning time from the 1996 Olympics as the fourth-fastest performance in that race. As in Beijing, Bolt finished off his Olympics by running on Jamaica's gold medal-winning, world record-setting 4X100-meter relay team, this time anchoring (whereas in Beijing he had run third and passed to Asafa Powell).
Bolt infused these victories with his customary panache. Dancing, posing, taking raucous victory laps and even five push-ups after the 200 meters (emblematic of his five Olympic gold medals at the time). And this, too, is part of the Essential Bolt -- the ability to perform at the highest possible level, under immense pressure, and yet at the same time make it appear that he's having fun. Which, in fact, he is. And therefore everyone watching in his thrall becomes part of the fun. This is another tiny subset of all athletes.
After Bolt won his second gold medal in London, he declared himself "a legend," and instructed the media -- and by extension, everybody else who is not in the media but might hear or read his words -- to "bask in my glory." It was so excessively self-indulgent, delivered with a straight face without any emotion that might convey humor or even hubris, that it was utterly indecipherable. It was just a Bolt moment, for which he was given an unqualified pass so as not to disrupt the party. And like all Bolt moments -- a race, a dance, a pose -- it was better than almost anybody else's.