Usain Bolt's departure leaves Tokyo 2020 with an impossible task: replace the irreplaceable
Ben Snowball pays tribute to Usain Bolt and admits athletics will never quite be the same.
What happens now?
The adventure is over. Eight years; nine gold medals; four world records in Olympic competition.
An impact that measured just 87.53 seconds over six individual finals, plus three relays, has elevated Usain Bolt above all others in track and field history. He’ll be wheeled out for a farewell tour in London next year, but his story ended in Rio. There will be no eclipsing the "triple triple".
No longer can a sport ravaged by doping and cover-up charges hide behind its poster boy. The ultimate deflection tactic – "Bolt’s on TV, everyone" – is gone.
Asafa Powell (JAM) of Jamaica, Yohan Blake (JAM) of Jamaica, Nickel Ashmeade (JAM) of Jamaica and Usain Bolt (JAM) of Jamaica celebrate after winning the gold.Reuters
The sprint finals of the past three Olympics have captured an audience otherwise unfazed by athletics. Who else could convince a small army of Europeans to stop drooling on their pillows in the early hours, blearily load up their bedside smartphone and gawp in astonishment for a few fleeting seconds before returning to dribble town?
Are casual fans really going to set alarms for sprinting sans Bolt? Behave.
The Jamaican has completely transformed athletics. His relaxed personality – a complete paradox, given he was always one defeat away from a tainted legacy – has seen pre-race introductions shift from stony-faced expressions to mini talent shows. From beginning to end, his dubious choreography has lit up meets around the globe.
Men's 4 x 100m Relay Final - Olympic Stadium - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 19/08/2016. Usain Bolt (JAM) of Jamaica kisses the track after his team won the goldReuters
Perhaps the greatest compliment Bolt can be paid has come from his fellow sprinters. They revere him – it’s a privilege to share a track with the Jamaican. Andre de Grasse was so desperate to share a moment with the (almost) 30-year-old that he treated their 200m semi-final as a life-defining charge.
The Canadian knew what a split second of airtime with Bolt would mean and, sure enough, it was soon dubbed the "world’s fastest bromance" as the pair gazed into each other’s eyes as six trailing men grimaced at maximum velocity. Take out Bolt and a mid-race smile is simply not a story.
Olympic finals are expected to be won by thousandths of a second. Yet the photo finish team have had more action from long-distance squabbles than determining Bolt’s margin of victory during his eight-year stretch. Defending titles is not meant to be easy. And yet did anyone really doubt him when he returned to the startline in Rio?
We will never see his like again.
Sure, probability dictates that someone faster will eventually emerge. But will that person have the charisma to carry a sport and a surname to match? Will that person be a natural headline act not just for athletics, but the Olympic Games? Fat chance.
He has played the emerging talent, beating his chest in Beijing; he has played the hero, stopping Justin Gatlin at last summer’s World Championships; he has always played the jester. From selfies to chicken nuggets, Segways to Sweden’s handball team, he has provided the perfect concoction of thrills. But for injuries in the build-up to London 2012, his world records might be even more unrecognisable to the chasing pack. He signs off with the perfect record. Nine finals; nine wins in the Olympics’ greatest events.
It leaves Tokyo 2020 with the impossible task: find a replacement for the irreplaceable.