RIO DE JANEIRO ― Eight years after exploding to superstardom in Beijing, Usain Bolt remains the sprint king, leaving the opposition in his wake once again to take an unprecedented third 100 meters Olympic gold in Rio. Bolt crossed the line first in a time of 9.81 seconds, beating 2004 gold medalist Justin Gatlin, with 9.89, into silver, with Canadian Andre de Grasse taking bronze with 9.91.
As so often, the 6-foot-5-inch Bolt was slow out of the blocks. And at 40 meters, Gatlin was in the clear and hunting a second gold of his own and only a second ever victory in nine races against his great rival. But Bolt showed once again that once he hits his lengthy stride there is nobody who can touch him. Within the blink of an eye, he had caught and passed Gatlin before relaxing across the line to celebrate his entrance into the history books.
The Olympic Stadium, almost full to capacity with a crowd whose anticipation had been whetted by a large clock counting down to the crowning of the fastest man on the planet from early in the evening, erupted. Bolt, full of the exuberant joy that has helped make him such a global star, headed off on his victory lap with a the Rio Olympics mascot in hand. And, fittingly, the stadium speakers immediately supplied the sounds of Bob Marley, perhaps the only Jamaican who can eclipse his fame, as Bolt injected some reggae into the warm samba party.
Already the greatest sprinter of all time, Rio, much as it was for Michael Phelps in the pool during the first week of the Olympics, is now merely his coronation. With victory on Sunday he has completed the first part of a unique “triple triple" and now moves onto the 200m and the men's 4x100m relay, when he will again be heavily favored to claim the top prize.
Remarkably, since taking home a trio of golds in Beijing, Bolt has yet to be beaten in a single major championship final, the one imperfect mark on his resume being his false-start disqualification from the 100m final of the 2011 World Championship.
It is in the 100m, though, the star attraction of the Olympics on the track, that Bolt has truly made his name; a fact made all the more remarkable given that he always claimed that it is the 200m that is his favorite event. Indeed, the 2008 Olympics marked Bolt's international debut in the 100m.
And yet he is now the first to be crowned the world's fastest man at the Olympics three times. No man had previously ever won three Olympic medals of any description in the event. Only one had won the Olympic title twice and Carl Lewis' second gold in 1988 remains tainted by doping controversy in what has been dubbed “the dirtiest race in history.”
At a time when track and field is facing its greatest doping scandal since those Games in Seoul, Bolt, untainted by even allegations of cheating, is a godsend for the sport.
Track and Field's governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), had banned all Russian athletes from these Games after the uncovering of state-sponsored doping. There were Russians in the pool, though. And one of the standout moments of the first week came when American swimmer Lilly King called out Russian rival Yulia Efimova and made it clear she didn't believe any athlete previously found guilty of doping had any place in the Olympics. The pervading feeling appeared to be one her side.
Yet in the 100m final Bolt's chief rival was an American, in Gatlin, who had twice served bans for failing drug tests. In contrast to the loud cheers that accompanied Bolt's arrival, as they do wherever he goes, when Gatlin emerged from the tunnel at the Olympic Stadium on Sunday night, more than a smattering of boos could be heard.
Just as in last year's World Championship final it was a race that was easy to bill as good versus evil, with Bolt carrying not just the weight of his caribbean nation on his shoulders but perhaps too, the weight of his sport.
— FLOW Jamaica (@FLOWJamaica) August 15, 2016
And just as in Beijing 12 months ago, Bolt arrived at a major event on the back of an injury-disrupted season in which his competitors had eclipsed his best times. But once more he came good when it really mattered. This time around Gatlin had set a world-leading time of 9.80 at the U.S. trials, while Bolt had been forced to withdraw from the Jamaica trials with a hamstring injury.
Yet for his rivals, there was an ominously familiar feel to proceedings as soon as Bolt stepped on the track in Rio. In the first round on Saturday, the rangy 29-year-old was slow out of the blocks and eased over the line in a time of 10.07 to win his heat. In the semifinals, his race was similar and yet, looking like a man on a casual Sunday stroll and flashing a smile as he glanced across to his trailing rivals, he posted a time of 9.86, the joint third fastest in the world this year.
Gatlin was solid in winning his semifinal in 9.94 but it was Bolt who exerted the greater sense of control, the suggestion that in his tank he possessed whatever it would take to ensure he would come out on top in the final.
And so it proved. Gatlin had buckled under the pressure of going up against Bolt a year ago, when Bolt, evidently not at his sharpest, attributed his victory to mental strength. Again it was Bolt's ability to deliver under pressure that led him to gold. However, his victory this time was even more dominant. At the age of 29 there is still no sprinter capable of matching him. In what is set to be his Olympics swansong, Bolt is leaving right at the very top.
Reporting from Bobby Ilich in Rio de Janeiro and Jason Le Miere in New York City.