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Bolt, legend: why we must bask in his glory

"Legend." A small word, but with such weight of meaning. Usain Bolt bandied it around a lot before the London Olympics, saying these would be the games where he wanted to become one. He did.

india Updated: Nov 24, 2012 19:17 IST
Usain Bolt,Michael Jordan,Bob Beamon

"Legend." A small word, but with such weight of meaning. Usain Bolt bandied it around a lot before the London Olympics, saying these would be the games where he wanted to become one.

He did.

But not solely for the reasons he thinks.

Becoming the first man to win the 200-meter sprint at two Olympics made Bolt a pioneer. But that feat, while historic, isn't in itself enough to make him legendary.

Nor is becoming the first sprinter to win both the 100 and 200 races at two consecutive games. That is the unprecedented sprint double Bolt completed Thursday. And that, as far as he was concerned, was mission accomplished. No ifs or buts.

Jamaica's Usain Bolt kisses his gold medal during the presentation ceremony for the men's 200m event at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium. Reuters/Eddie Keogh

"I am now a living legend. Bask in my glory," he said.

But Bolt is selling himself short. His legend rests on more than just the new pages he has written in record books.

He's a legend for the same reason Michael Jordan is. And that is neatly summed up in the words carved into black granite under the bronze statue of Jordan in Chicago, where the NBA superstar played his basketball with the Bulls.

They read: "The best there ever was. The best there ever will be."

Some people become legends for a legendary feat.

Bob Beamon fits into that category. Before his leap at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, the world record in long jump had taken 40 years to grow by 55 centimeters (1 foot, 9.6 inches). Beamon added that much again in one jump. His world record of 8.90 meters (29-2.3) was so long it had to be calculated the old fashioned way, with a tape, because the electrical measuring devices didn't stretch that far.

Like Beamon's jump that set the standard for the next 23 years, Bolt's world records in the 100 and 200 made the seemingly impossible suddenly very real. That's the stuff of legends.

In London, it felt almost disappointing that Bolt didn't break his world records again. But that is really a measure of how far Bolt has pushed the boundaries of sprinting. Even Bolt can't beat Bolt every time. But he gets very close.

His 100 in London, at 9.63 seconds, was the second-fastest ever. And his 19.32 seconds in winning the 200 on Thursday was as fast as Michael Johnson ever ran it. Many thought the American's world record from the 1996 Atlanta Games was safe until Bolt sliced a couple of hundredths off it at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Then, a year later in Berlin, Bolt cut that mark to a mind-boggling 19.19.

Other legends, like Jesse Owens, were products of their time. Owens' four Olympic golds were one fewer than Bolt now has. But the legend of Owens rests largely on the fact that he was a black athlete and his winning at the 1936 Berlin Games made a mockery of Adolf Hitler's theories of white superiority. Unlike Owens, Bolt's color isn't a big part of what makes him legendary.

Jacques Rogge, the IOC president, thinks it's too early to crown Bolt a legend. He suggests Bolt needs to compete in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 first.

"The career of Usain Bolt has to be judged when the career stops," he said Thursday. "Let him participate in three, four games, and he can be a legend. Already he's an icon."

But Rogge was a Bolt party pooper in Beijing, too, picking holes in his victory celebrations, saying he should "show more respect for his competitors and shake hands."

Rogge didn't get it then, and doesn't seem to get it now.

Bolt is manna for the Olympics, for sport and for his sport. Not only a superior athlete but charming, funny and, as far as we know, not doping.

Jamaica's Usain Bolt crosses the finish line ahead of Jamaica's Yohan Blake to win gold in the men's 100-meter final during the athletics in the Olympic Stadium at the 2012 Summer Olympics, London. AP/David J Phillip

He loves the crowds and they love him back. In the 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium, they chanted "Usain! Usain!" They didn't do that for other athletes.

After the 100 on Sunday, they yelled at him: "Do the Bolt!" He didn't get irritated, he didn't ignore them. He pointed his finger at the sky in his trademark pose, happy to please.

He also stopped a television interview in midflow because the "Star-Spangled Banner" was playing in the stadium for Sanya Richards-Ross, winner of the women's 400 meters. How's that for respect, Mr. Rogge?

Really, the Olympics couldn't ask for a better champion.

"Everyone owes him a debt of gratitude," said two-time decathlon Olympic champion Daley Thompson, "because he's the guy who's bringing the crowds back."

The Oxford English Dictionary is more helpful than Rogge in trying to understand Bolt's "legend" claim.

It says the word can mean "an extremely famous or notorious person."

Few people on this planet are more famous than Bolt.

Gold medalist Jamaica's Usain Bolt celebrates with spectators as he stands on the podium during the medal ceremony after the men's 200m final at the athletics event during the London 2012 Olympic Games. AFP/Franck Fife

But it can also mean "a story," something recounted over and over.

And that fits Bolt perfectly.

For years to come, we'll talk not only about his Olympic triumphs, but about the way he won them. The magnificence of him erupting from the blocks and unfurling his muscular 1.95-meter (6-5) frame. The sight of his long legs gobbling up the track. Just awesome, every time.

On the biggest stage, he made us gasp, not once or twice but repeatedly.

The best there ever will be? Even with Jordan, no one can really tell.

But Bolt is the best sprinter there ever was.

Everything he is and everything he has done are stories that will be told and retold.

And that, like Jordan, Owens and others, is why Bolt is now a legend.

Jamaica's Usain Bolt celebrates winning the men's 200m final during the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium. Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

(John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press)

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First Published: Aug 10, 2012 13:17 IST