As he struggled through his worst, slowest season since he became the fastest man alive at the 2008 Olympics, an atmosphere of doubt surrounded Usain Bolt for the first time.
We’d seen Bolt sleepwalk through non-Olympic years before, but this felt different. With the 2015 World Championships right around the corner, Bolt’s times were so off this summer that even he had to admit that something was up.
After running a 20.29-second 200 meters in New York in June — a time that didn’t even crack the top-20 in the world in 2015 — Bolt sounded lost.
“I really don’t know what happened today,” he told the Guardian. “We’ve just go to go back to the drawing board and figure it out.”
“This season is not going so smoothly,” he added. “I’m trying to figure out what’s going on. I need to get on top of things. With this pace, it looks like trouble.”
Two weeks later he pulled out of the Jamaican Championships and announced he wouldn’t be competing in two Diamond League events with a pelvic injury, his second significant injury in four months.
His lone encouraging result came less a month before the World Championships, when he ran a 9.87-second 100 meters on a rain-soaked track in London.
In the weeks before the World Championships — to be held in the same Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing where a 22-year-old Bolt exploded onto the scene seven years earlier — Bolt found himself in the unlikely role of the underdog.
American Justin Gatlin had 2015’s fastest times in both the 100m and 200m, and hadn’t lost a race in two years.
The narrative seemed ready-made: Gatlin (the villain) would beat an injured, out-of-form Bolt at the World Championships, setting up a rematch at the Olympics 12 months from now.
If everyone stuck to the script, a rejuvenated Bolt would avenge his loss in Rio, restore order to the track universe, and maybe even walk into the sunset, retiring as the world’s greatest sprinter at age 30.
It would have been a great story, but it was never going to happen. To be the subject of a redemption story you have to be fallible, and when it comes to Usain Bolt at his sport’s two big competitions, he’s close as you can come to infallible.
Bolt came to Beijing and won both the 100m and 200m, beating Gatlin twice. He now has five of the ten fastest 200m times ever, four of the ten fastest 100m times ever, and the world records in both events.
If he hadn’t been disqualified for the 100m final at the 2011 World Championships, Bolt would have won every Olympic and World Championship gold medal in the two events since 2008.
He won the 200 meters in 19.55 seconds — the 10th-fastest time ever — despite jogging the last five meters:
He won the 100 meters too, beating Gatlin in his strongest event with a time of 9.79 seconds. While that race wasn’t as dominant as his 200m win, we got a glimpse of his casual brilliance in the semifinals, when he almost fell down before winning his heat with a blazing fast last 50 meters:
The World Championships taught us that a healthy, engaged Bolt is always going to be the fastest. There is no unpredictability, there is only Bolt being able to run faster than anyone else can run.
This is what has made Bolt so uniquely fascinating. We don’t watch him to see if he’ll win (as some predicted we would coming into Beijing), we watch him to see how fast he’ll go.
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