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Saturday in London, Jamaican Usain Bolt will run a final 100 meters at track and field's World Championships at approximately 4:45 p.m. ET. A week later, after a relay finale, he says he'll retire. Bolt will leave with an eye-popping highlight reel that includes eight Olympic gold medals over the past three summer games.
Initially, there were nine golds — the hallowed Triple Triple — he won the 100 meters, 200 meters and 4 X 100 relay in three straight Olympic games — 2008, 2012 and 2016. But earlier this year, Bolt lost one of the medals when a teammate on the 2008 Jamaican relay team tested positive for a banned drug after his urine sample was re-analyzed by the International Olympic Committee in 2016.
Nine or eight, I was lucky enough to see all the races.
Jesse Owens was history's most important sprinter. ... Carl Lewis made it profitable to be a sprinter. ... But Usain Bolt is the greatest sprinter of all time.Ato Boldon, Four-Time Olympic Medalist, Track & Field Analyst, NBC
"Here I am"
And I remember something he said after winning the last one. It was a year ago, in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. At his press conference, someone asked Bolt about growing up in a rural part of Jamaica, playing sports like cricket and soccer. And running. Did he start with big dreams?
"I just started out in athletics and I was really good and I just continued," Bolt said. "Over the years, I started making goals because I started getting better and I just continued running and pushing myself and working hard until ... here I am."
Here. I. Am.
Usain Bolt has announced his presence to the world so many times over the past nine years. But no hello was as big or gob-smacking as the first one. August 2008, in China. I remember the hazy Beijing night at the Bird's Nest Stadium. The quiet before the gun — that moment of exquisite tension in any 100-meter race. But especially now. Bolt was the sport's new phenom; the lanky 6-foot-5-inch Jamaican giant among much smaller and more compact sprinters, had people buzzing about his potential.
Those 100 meters in Beijing turned the buzz to awe. Four-time Olympic medalist Ato Boldon was part of the crew covering the race as track and field analyst for NBC.
"When he accelerated from about 30 to 70 [meters]," Boldon says, "I have never seen anything like it before. And I've never seen anything like it since."
Indeed, none of us at the Bird's Nest could fathom what we were watching. The world's fastest men blazing down the track, and suddenly it was like they were all standing still.
Except for one.
A tractor wheel
Beijing was our introduction to the Bolt surge, and the most dramatic. But since 2008, we've seen it again and again. In the 100-meters and 200-meters, his preferred and best distance. Surging and winning without a cloud of doping hanging over him.
There is a physical explanation.
"Usain Bolt is a big wheel," Boldon explains. "Think of a tractor wheel, able to turn over with the same speed as a smaller wheel. Once a big wheel gets going, it's going to cover so much more ground that quite frankly, small wheels have no chance."
"That's why people ask me, how would you have done against Usain Bolt? Well, I'm 5 feet 9 inches. I'd have gotten out ahead of him and right about 40, 50 meters, he would've caught me and it wouldn't have been pretty in the end."
Speed and charisma
But for those of us who have simply watched, it's always been pretty in the end. The joyous celebrations, the lightning bolt poses (which actually aren't), the smiling and mugging to the cameras pre-race, when the tension is supposed to be highest.
This irresistible combo of speed and charisma let us overlook the few public blemishes — a sex romp in Brazil, selfies included, with the widow of a slain drug kingpin, or Bolt's longtime relationship with a controversial German sports doctor who's known to inject patients with calves' blood and the crests of cockerels.
In the end, they were minor speed bumps on the road to what should be a towering legacy.
"Jesse Owens was history's most important sprinter, for obvious reasons," Boldon says. "Carl Lewis made it profitable to be a sprinter. He sort of dragged track and field kicking and screaming into the professional era. But Usain Bolt is the greatest sprinter of all time. And I think he has been maybe the best thing that has happened to this sport in many generations."
Which prompts the questions: Who will fill the void? Will there ever be anyone as great?
"I have to be careful with that," Boldon says. "I was on the podium for the Michael Johnson race [the 200-meters at the 1996 Summer Olympics], and I remember everyone being blown away by Michael running 19.32, when nobody had gotten close."
"I felt that night that record would never be broken. That was 1996. Twelve years later, it was gone."
Bolt, of course, smashed his 2008 Olympic world record times in both the 100-meters and 200-meters, a year later.
"I think Bolt's records [9.58 seconds in the 100; 19.19 seconds in the 200] are so good they won't be gone in 12 years," Boldon says. "I think they'll last for a very, very long time. But I won't be so bold as to say they'll never be broken."
Last bit of business
Bolt comes to London this weekend for the World Championships after a subpar season. His fastest time in the 100-meters this year ranks him seventh in the world. There's talk about him being an underdog, to which he answers, "If I show up at a championship, I'm confident. I'm fully ready to go."
Ato Boldon says it's critically important to Bolt to finish with a win. Despite all that's come before.
"He does not want to lose, he cannot lose, because he feels that'll put a little bit of a dent in what otherwise has been a perfect vehicle."
But Boldon thinks Bolt's legacy is safe.
"If he doesn't have a good race here in London, people will say well that's too bad he couldn't go out on top," Boldon says. "But he does have eight Olympic gold medals, and I think most real track and field fans will remember the joy they felt watching him perform over the last nine seasons."
On Saturday, one last time in the 100-meter, Bolt hopes to proclaim, "Here I am." When he's done, probably in 9-point-something seconds, the world will say, with a touch of sadness, "There he goes."
NPR's Maquita Peters produced this story for the Web.
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