In the bowels of the Stadio Olimpico late on Thursday night, Usain Bolt, clad in an Italy football shirt, leaned across to Justin Gatlin and offered his hand. Gatlin took it and Bolt gave him a pat on the back too.
Bolt is not used to losing – since he became a flying force of nature you can count on the fingers of one hand the major races in which he has failed to finish first. Gatlin adds his name to those of Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell and Yohan Blake: the men who have beaten Bolt. But none of them have done it when it really mattered, when a major medal was on the table. Two years ago Bolt beat himself, leaping too early from his blocks and allowing Blake to become world champion.
Daegu was a breathtaking moment of sporting drama and while Thursday night’s blink-of-an-eye defeat to Gatlin lacked that impact, it still stands out. Bolt had come into the race full of confidence, looking relaxed even by his standards. The expectation was that this would be another Roman launchpad for his season.
He said afterwards – more than once – that he was not worried. He will head for Paris and Roland Garros, where he will present the trophy after the men’s final tomorrow, and from there to Oslo to run a 200m on Thursday. Somewhere en route he will watch the tape of the race.
On the plus side was his start – usually the weakest part of his race. His reaction time was the quickest in the field, better even than Kim Collins, the speediest of starters. But what was strikingly absent was the characteristic mid-race acceleration, when it seems as if the rest of the field have been paused.
Bolt simply looked undercooked. He has had problems with a hamstring injury and that has hampered his early-season preparations. In contrast Gatlin is well into his season and the looming US trials, in which there is no margin for error, mean that he needs to be approaching his best right now. His winning time of 9.94sec is not one that will worry Bolt for long.
When full race fitness returns, Bolt will remain an overwhelming favourite to win in Moscow. Similar doubts accompanied him to London last year after he was beaten twice by Blake in the Jamaican trials. Questions have been asked before and he has always been swift to answer them but there was one note on Thursday night that suggested being Usain Bolt is becoming more difficult.
“It has been really crazy since the Olympics,” he said. “It has been hard for me to get everything together because there are more demands. It is tough.”
His double double ensured his legendary status; whether he can turn that into an extraordinary treble double in Rio may depend on how he can hold everything together, the strain of keeping his body moving at speeds new to man for a third Olympic cycle and the strain of dealing with being the man everyone wants a bit of.