The spectators in the Olympic stadium for the final of the men's 100-meter dash were treated to a great show, even if it isn't completely new. Usain Bolt's message is almost better than his race.
Usain Bolt enters the arena with outstretched arms, striking a pose that reminds you of the Christ the Redeemer statue. As the cameras click away from all angles, he almost seems as large as the giant statue of Jesus Christ, which is Rio's trademark. Usain Bolt steps lightly as he approaches the tartan track. As he greets the crowd, the cheers just keep getting louder and it seems as if everyone in the Olympic stadium is on their feet. Bolt smiles as he moves. Everything about him oozes confidence. There is not a trace of doubt. There is no sign of the hamstring injury that held him back during qualifying in Jamaica in mid-July. His unmistakable body language shows that Bolt is fully fit. But is he good enough for gold?
Arrogance or psychological weapon?
The first indicator is the semifinal. Running in the second heat, Bolt easily records the best time of the semis, letting up in the final few meters as he so often does. This is a psychological trick, meant to show his competitors that he is taking it as easy as he would in training. Over the course of his career, some have interpreted this as arrogance - and not without reason. But Bolt is a master of his craft and in a sport in which scientific studies have shown that the psychological side of things can have a major impact, such mind games can be effective.
During the warm-up for the final, the spectators cheer for Bolt as if he had already won the race. He plays to the crowd, gesturing to them, demanding that they applaud even louder. Bolt is a master showman. Seconds before the start, he flirts a little with the camera. This too is familiar; it is all part of the show.
"The crowd loves this energy, the people want it. They want to be a part of it," Bolt says later, sounding more like an analyst than a clown.
Turbochargers not firing like they used to
Then it gets quiet in the Olympic Stadium, which on this evening is (yet again) not sold out. The starter's pistol breaks the silence, the spectators shout and Bolt gets off to poor start - as usual. However, with his long strides he quickly begins to make up time on this opponents. By the 50-meter mark he is already up to second place, with only the American veteran Justin Gatlin left to catch. This is the point at which his turbochargers would normally kick in and he would leave everyone else in his dust. But they aren't firing like they used to. Bolt works his way up to Gatlin and just manages to overtake the American, who has twice been suspended for doping. This time he can't let up in the last few meters but has to push himself until the very end. As usual though, he wins.
"Anything else would have been a disappointment," Bolt says. "Anything less than three gold medals here in Rio would be a disappointment," he adds, as he sets his sights on the 200 and the relay. Days before his 30th birthday, Bolt is still the dominant force in sprinting, despite the fact that his time of 9.81 seconds is well off his world-record of 9.58, which he set in Berlin in 2009. There is a reason for this; the final is scheduled unusually soon after the semifinal, and the short break between the two races isn't good for his legs. "My start wasn't very good, I felt dead. I need more time to recover, especially now that I am getting old."
Perhaps time is even starting to catch up with this exceptional athlete.
You have to give your all
These are almost certainly his last Olympic Games, which is one reason that he fully savors the moment. He celebrates with a victory lap, clutching a stuffed Olympic mascot in one hand (something that no doubt pleases Rio's marketing department). He puts on a baseball cap and starts shaking spectators' hands. Everybody wants to touch the fastest man on the planet. Everybody wants to be like him.
But is this even possible? Can people emulate the world's ultimate sporting role model? Bolt thinks about it for a second and starts his answer in an uncharacteristically modest manner. "It is an honor to inspire people," he says. "You need the will, to be prepared to give everything, to do your best, to work hard on yourself. If you do this, you will reach your goals and push your boundaries," he says.
This too is part of the show. Of course he is unique, genetically blessed and not to be duplicated, no matter how determined anyone might be to try to do so. Still, many believe his message, and this is what counts. Then he stands up and again, everybody wants to have their picture taken with him. Usain Bolt is not just an athlete, he is an attraction - just like Christ the Redeemer.