He is the greatest sportsman on earth and quite possibly the greatest showman too. Roll up, roll up and watch him run – Usain Bolt was nowhere near his best on Saturday night but it was still his night. It was always going to be on a night when it was all about rolling back the clock.
A dire start even suggested that a second defeat of a stop-start season was on the way with the American Mike Rodgers threatening on his inside and Kim Collins on the other, but he pulled through the second half of the race and in the end won with something to spare from Rodgers and the ageless Collins. Bolt’s time of 9.85sec was his best of the year, and the fastest of any of the men who are likely to line up at the world championships in Moscow in a couple of weeks. Yet this was not the Bolt of 12 months ago, far from it – on his lap of honour he hurled his running spikes into the crowd almost as if he wanted rid of them.
“That was a bad start,” he said afterwards. “There is a lot of room for improvement. I am just happy to have won.”
How his sport needs Bolt right now. He was here thanks to a tax break – a gritted teeth thank you the Chancellor – and he gave his sport a break taking the adoring attention of a 65,000 full house in the Olympic Stadium. It was all about reminiscing and Bolt ensured he stuck to the script that had been written for him.
“It’s good to be back here,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of love for this stadium and this crowd.” To the crowd nothing mattered more than him winning, although to his opponents, and in particular Justin Gatlin, after that performance they will believe the world’s fastest man can be caught in Moscow. Gatlin has spoken of wanting to turn the 100m into a dogfight and what tonight did show is that Bolt will fight. That was a victory dug from deep.
This has not been an easy year for Bolt and in that at least he is far from unique. Sebastian Coe spoke recently about his own personal struggles in Olympic year plus one. “When you are in an Olympic year there are no tomorrows,” remarked Coe, who also highlighted the mental fatigue that accompanies athletes into the first year of the next Olympic cycle. David Rudisha, Coe’s own favourite, and Greg Rutherford are two Olympic gold medallists who will not be in Moscow next month.
There have been signs that Bolt is suffering post-Olympic blues but Bolt being Bolt it is in a way only he could. Hamstring problems dogged his early season training but it is the demands that accompany him off the track that at times appear to be taking their toll.
After his defeat in Rome in June, he suggested that everyone wanting a piece of him was not leaving the man himself with very much in reserve. “It has been really crazy since the Olympics,” he said in the bowels of the Stadio Olimpico in immediate aftermath of his defeat by Gatlin. “It has been hard for me to get everything together because there are more demands, it is tough.”
He was feted in Rome – men and women rushing to the front of the stands during his pre-race parade in a swooning display of Boltmania. He is feted everywhere – every appearance, for which he is of course very well rewarded, comes with bells and whistles. It is never a case of turning up and running. Bolt carries it off with aplomb. The impression is always that Usain Bolt enjoys being Usain Bolt 24/7, although he admitted today that “sometimes you do get tired” of bells and whistles.
Tonight, three hours before the race, and 30 minutes after he woke from an afternoon doze, he was ferried around the stadium in what resembled a left-over from Scrapheap Challenge, dutifully saluting the crowd.
His appearance fee for tonight – and for running the 4x100m relay on Saturday – was in the region of £500,000. Nice work, but not the motivation. So what do you give the man who has it all, what carrot can you dangle in front of him that will keep him on the road to Rio 2016? He will celebrate his 30th birthday on the last day of the Rio Games; Linford Christie won in Barcelona aged 32, the oldest winner of the race by four years. The six Olympic gold medals, the one and only double double, the fastest man the world has seen – there is not a whole lot left to achieve. He said himself that he has accomplished his dreams yet he insists the motivation once he has his running head on remains as strong as ever, there are still golden goals. He wants, he says, to dominate each of the years of this Olympic cycle and then crown it with golds seven, eight and nine – a haul that will draw him level with Carl Lewis and the flying Finn Paavo Nurmi but arguably above anybody as an Olympian.
So far he has not dominated 2013, but of course that will matter not a jot if he is standing on top of the podium in Moscow 15 days from now and it will still take a brave man to bet against that. “Everybody has got to bring their A game to the [world] championships,” said Bolt. He will remain at his base in Teddington in south-west London to fine tune his preparation and in particular to sort that start. As tonight demonstrated he is still up for a fight and nobody will bring that fight out more than Gatlin, the former doper for whom Bolt has little time.
James Dasaolu, who ran 9.91sec in Birmingham and was one of five men who came into the night having run faster than the main man, never even made it to the start line. The 25-year-old pulled out of the race after suffering a problem with a hip while warming-up. It was described as a precaution ahead of the world championships.