‘The greatest sprinter of all time’ bows out

Blink of an eye: It took Bolt a combined 87.53 seconds to win six Olympic golds. © Getty

The world’s fastest man will retire after running his final race this weekend. Does Usain Bolt deserve to be considered one of the greatest sportsmen ever, or is he just a freak of nature?

It all began with a bet over a free lunch.

When Usain Bolt was just 12 years-old, a local priest overheard him arguing with his close friend, Ricardo Gedes, over who was the quickest runner. The priest decided to offer a free lunch to whoever won a 100 metre race between the two.

Bolt tore to victory. As he tucked into his reward, the priest said to him: “If you can beat Ricardo, you can beat anyone.” He really could.

Eighteen years later and Usain Bolt is the most famous name in the history of athletics. He has won the 100m and 200m at the last three Olympic games, races for which he holds the world record, as well as winning two 4x100m relay golds.

He has dominated the World Athletics Championships in a similar manner, and it is this event that will see Bolt bow out of athletics at the age of 30.

The Championships start in London on Friday, with the 100m taking place this weekend. In typical style, he is supremely confident. When a Jamaican journalist dared to ask him what would happen if he lost, Bolt responded: “I can’t believe you’re asking me that. We won’t have that problem, don’t worry about it.”

This laid-back, assured attitude is part of what makes Bolt the archetypal champion. He is a charismatic showman, often openly coasting the last ten metres of a race. He is also a party-animal, as photos of his post-Olympic victory celebrations in a Rio nightclub show.

But he mixes this with a serious-minded dedication to his sport. Every morning starts with an exhausting workout — and that is before he even starts sprinting in the Caribbean humidity.

And his bravado masks a certain self-doubt. “Every year, before my first race, I worry: ‘Am I still fast?’” he says.

In an age where doping scandals have robbed athletics of a lot of credibility, Bolt is a shining exception. “I feel good because I know I’ve done it clean,” he proclaims. Of the six fastest men ever, only Bolt has an unblemished doping record.

Bolt is undoubtedly a great of athletics. But should he stand in the pantheon of sporting legends?

Bolt from the blue

“Absolutely,” say some. Bolt’s world records and Olympic victories will be remembered for decades to come. He has defined one of the most fascinating fields of athletics for a decade, pushing the boundaries of what human beings can do. And he has done it all in his own memorable, idiosyncratic style.

Others respond that Bolt is merely a freak of nature. Sprinting is simply about physicality, and involves none of the intelligence or tactical awareness of football or boxing. And the nature of world records is that they cease to be remembered once they are broken. He cannot be compared with Muhammad Ali or Pelé.

You Decide

  1. Is Usain Bolt the greatest sportsman of the 21st century? If not, who is?
  2. Should we be fascinated by the question of who is the fastest person in the world?

Activities

  1. Write down your definition of the term “sporting greatness”. Compare your definition with those of your classmates.
  2. Pick a sporting figure who you believe is underrated by history. In 500 words, explain your choice.

Some People Say...

“It’s okay to be arrogant — if you’ve earned it.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
That Usain Bolt will compete in the World Athletics Championships in London this weekend and will then retire. In a glittering career, he has broken both the 100m and 200m records, and has also been part of Jamaica’s world record 4x100m relay. He is the hot favourite to win in London. Bolt is one of the most famous athletes of all time, and many rank him among sport’s all-time greats.
What do we not know?
Whether Bolt really will be remembered decades after his retirement. Many of the previous world record sprinters, such as Donovan Bailey and Silvio Leonard, are long forgotten. There is also speculation that Bolt may reverse his decision to retire, although he has ruled this out.

Word Watch

Usain Bolt
Born in Trelawny parish, Jamaica, in 1986, Bolt was initially drawn to football and cricket over sprinting. He is a physical outlier compared with most sprinters, who tend to be stocky. Bolt, however, is 6ft 5ins tall, allowing him to make vastly greater strides than his opponents.
Two 4x100m relay golds
In 2008, Jamaica won the 4x100m relay, but in January 2016 Nesta Carter, one of the sprinters, tested positive for a banned stimulant. This led to Jamaica being stripped of their gold medal.
World Athletics Championships
The Championships are being staged in the Olympic Stadium in London. They start on August 4th and end on August 13th. Also competing for the last time is Mo Farah, the British long-distance runner.
Dedication
Bolt eats six meals a day, all rigorously controlled by his team of trainers and assistants.

Subjects

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