Last summer, I went to a nondescript conference room in a midtown Manhattan hotel to see Usain Bolt. He was racing that week at a Diamond League meet on Randall’s Island, on the same track where, six years earlier, he had set the world record in the hundred metres with an electric run. At the press conference, Bolt was, as ever, relaxed and loose. He was feeling good, he said. He was already looking ahead to the two hundred metres in Rio. “I really want to get to sub-nineteen seconds,” he said, “and [win] the Olympics three times.” As he left the podium, the members of the media applauded. He paused, turned around, picked up the microphone again, and told the press to clap louder. Everyone laughed and applauded again.
But there was a current of anxiety running beneath the applause—and not just because it’s generally considered poor form for the press to cheer. That day had been a reminder of how much track—and the people who covered it—relied on Bolt. And that was worrying. A sub-nineteen two hundred metres? At the time, Bolt was struggling to break twenty. At the meet that week, Bolt would run it in 20.29. Some were starting to wonder whether it was the beginning of the end of Bolt’s dominance. Even Bolt seemed bewildered. “I don’t know what happened,” Bolt said after the race. “I really can’t explain. It was really bad. It was probably one of the worst turns I’ve ever had in my entire life. I don’t know.” The worst? “The worst,” he said again.
Two months later, though, Bolt beat his rival Justin Gatlin to win the World Championships in the hundred metres, and all the talk of decline disappeared. The celebration was mixed with relief. What was at stake, it seemed, was more than Bolt’s legacy. With more and more evidence suggesting widespread doping in the sport, many were looking to Bolt to save track’s popularity—and its credibility.
At his first appearance in Rio this month, Bolt walked into a press conference to more applause. “First of all, you’ve got to clap louder than that,” he said. “That was weak.” Then a Norwegian member of the media stood up. “I don’t really have a question,” he said. “I just want to say, I really love you, man.” Then he rapped a love song. When Bolt left the stage, he was accompanied by twelve samba dancers. The party had begun.
And it’s been so much fun. Last night, during the two hundred metres, Bolt worked for the win—flying around the turn, straining down the stretch. Almost. The second-fastest racer was far behind, but Bolt was running against the clock. He finished with a time of 19.78. For a moment he looked disappointed; he hadn’t broken nineteen. But then the smile returned. What did he have left to prove? His earlier victory in the hundred metres had already confirmed his legacy, and his obvious joy only increased his legend. The impish mid-race smile, the signature pose, the pre-and-post-and-practically-mid-race dancing, the blazing charisma—what’s there not to love? How could you not applaud?
But the party is winding down. Bolt has said that this will be his last Olympics. He’s planning to retire entirely after the World Championships, in London, next year. It’s hard to know what track will look like when he’s gone. There have been several transcendent performances at these Olympics, including, perhaps most spectacularly, the astonishing world record set by Wayde van Niekerk, of South Africa, who ran the four hundred metres in 43.03 seconds. But the anxiety lingers. “Fairly or unfairly,” the New York Times’ write-up of van Niekerk’s win read, “given the tainted state of track and field due to doping, that performance may bring as much skepticism as celebration.”
My response to van Niekerk’s win was much closer to Bolt’s own reaction when he saw the time—a gleeful gasp. Suspicion never entered into it. But fairly or unfairly, with Bolt set to leave the stage, the appreciation for Bolt’s unprecedented performance is mixed with foreboding. I can’t help but think of what Darren Campbell, a retired British sprinter, who won Olympic silver in the two hundred metres, in 2000, and gold in the four-by-one-hundred, in 2004, said to me before the World Championships last year. “If Usain Bolt wins in the World Championships, everybody goes, ‘O.K., great! Usain wins! The savior!’ ” he said. “But what happens when Usain Bolt is no longer in the sport? What happens then?” We’re about to find out.