Usain Bolt rescued his sport from drug taints, made it sexy
“All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal,’’ Aristotle postulated in Syllogism Barbara, the bedrock of classical logic. To rationalize last week’s upset result in the 100m final of the World Athletics Championships, replace Socrates with Usain Bolt.
For diehard fans—and they measure in millions all over the world—Aristotle’s supremely wise words offer a philosophical crutch to lean on as respite from acute disappointment. Even the best of us, the greatest, are ultimately limited by our being human.
When the nine sprinters lined up for the final at the Olympic Stadium in London, Bolt was obviously the cynosure of attention. He was the reigning champion and this was to be his last competitive race in an individual event. Just about everybody wanted him to sign off with a gold medal.
True, Bolt’s sketchy form this season had been of some concern to aficionados. He had been way below his career-best timing. There were niggling injuries to worry about. In the heats, starts had been sluggish and the finish far from explosive.
But hey, this was Bolt. Never short on hunger for winning, always capable of coming up with a special effort to stamp his authority on a sport he had dominated for over a decade, like no sprinter before him. What could stop him now?
Ironically, it was to be American Justin Gatlin, his long-standing nemesis, who had twice been suspended for drug-taking. Bolt was slow off the blocks. Where in the past he would make up for this with strong loping strides mid-race and an explosive “kick” at the finish, this time it was not to be.
That Bolt finished third—with young Christian Coleman winning silver—is of academic interest. It was gold he was seeking, and he was beaten to it.
That he clocked his season’s best timing (9.95 seconds) is of no recompense or consequence.
The rest of the field too was flabbergasted at the turn of events. An overwhelming feeling of despondency hung over the stadium, felt even by those watching the race on TV. Everybody wanted Bolt to win because there had been none like him before.
Past champions like Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis had been more versatile (they were also long-jumpers), but lacked the same panache, flamboyance and, certainly, the speed. True, timings improve as a human beings evolve, but even so, Bolt looked like he was cut from a different cloth.
When he started, it was said Bolt was too tall to sustain the high knee action so vital in sprints. But he only got better and better. Scepticism later centred on his showmanship. This will be his downfall, argued critics. In fact, this became his method of self-motivation.
The comparison with Muhammad Ali is valid to an extent, for the latter had several other dimensions to his persona beyond sport. But like the great boxer, Bolt was colourful, not averse to braggadocio, and loved to psyche his opponents.
Like Ali did for boxing, Bolt made sprinting sexy and rescued it from its comatose condition. He filled stadiums wherever he ran. The unending string of successes inspired hundreds of young men and women—and not just in his native Jamaica—to take to sprinting.
Perhaps most importantly, he pulled athletics out of the mire of mistrust caused by drug-taking athletes. For a long spell, rivals and officials, frazzled by his achievements, put Bolt under intense scrutiny to see if he was unclean. As yet, there hasn’t been any taint on him.
The immediate—and not unfounded—parallel to Bolt’s final race comes from cricket. In Don Bradman’s last Test innings. Bradman needed just four runs to finish with a Test career average of 100. As it happened, he got out for a second-ball duck, finishing with 99.94.
Yet the failures of both Bradman and Bolt in their final performance, deeply tragic in one sense, find redemption when juxtaposed with Aristotle’s Barbara. Within the framework of human limitations, their achievements have not just been extraordinary, but almost immortal.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.