RIO DE JANEIRO — There’s an electricity that Usain Bolt continues to bring to the Rio Olympic Arena even 12 years after his Olympic debut in Athens. The first day of track and field action was littered with thousands of empty seats in the stadium and the occasional outbreak of cheers for a Brazilian athlete. Rio finally got its Olympic feel when Bolt came out for the heats of the men’s 100 meters Saturday.
He shaved his face and cut his hair. He recorded a video of himself eating chicken nuggets and posted it to Snapchat. There are some parallels that can be drawn to his 2008 Olympics in Beijing but it is clear that this is an older and less dominant Bolt than previous years.
The margin of victory has closed on Bolt since he celebrated early across the finish line in Beijing:
Margin of victory between Bolt and second place finisher
2008 Olympics: .20 seconds (Bolt runs 9.69 world record)
2009 World Championships: .13 seconds (Bolt lowers world record to 9.58)
2011 World Championships: DNS (Bolt false starts)
2012 Olympics: .12 seconds (Bolt defends Olympic title in 9.63)
2013 World Championships: .08 seconds (Bolt reclaims world title in 9.77)
2015 World Championships: .01 seconds (Bolt defends world title in 9.79)
It is a common misconception that Bolt has never lost at the Olympics. He made his debut at 17 years old and struggled with injury in the men’s 200 meters at the 2004 Games in Athens. When he returned in Beijing, he was older, stronger and a world record holder in the men’s 100 meters. No one has been able to dethrone him since.
The younger generation is knocking at the door with Americans Trayvon Bromell and Andre De Grasse tied for bronze at last summer’s world championships.
Here’s a look at the possible finalists that may have a shot of finally taking down Bolt:
Justin Gatlin, USA
Personal best: 9.74 (2015)
Accomplishments: 2004 Olympic 100-meter gold medalist; 2012 Olympic 100-meter silver medalist; six-time world championship medalist
Betting odds to win: +275
The gold medal belonged to Gatlin at last summer’s world championships with five meters to go in the race. That’s when the “The Bolt Factor” kicked in and he lost his form and let the gold medal slip away. Gatlin has called it the toughest loss of his career and he took a long break from training and racing to recover in the fall. He is not off to as fast of a start to 2016 to save his energy for Rio but if Bolt gets in his head again, he will lose in what is likely his last chance to beat the Jamaican star. If he’s on and focused, he would become the oldest 100-meter gold medalist in Olympic history.
Trayvon Bromell, USA
Personal best: 9.84 (2015, 2016)
Accomplishments: 2015 world championship bronze medalist
Betting odds to win: +2000
Bromell winning the 100 would be a major surprise. Since 2014, Bolt vs. Gatlin has been thought of as the headline bout for Rio, yet the youngster cannot be discounted after matching his personal best of 9.84 at the Olympic trials in July. He surprised many with his bronze medal finish at last year’s world championships. Throughout his career as a high school star in Florida and a freshman at Baylor running at the world junior championships, he runs well through rounds and peaks in the final.
Yohan Blake, Jamaica
Personal best: 9.69 (2012)
Accomplishments: 2012 Olympic 100-meter silver medalist and 200-meter silver medalist
Betting odds to win: +1600
Blake is the last man to beat Bolt for a 100-meter title at the world championships, though that was Bolt’s own doing with a false start in Daegu in 2011. “The Beast” is a longshot in Rio but he has Olympic experience and trains with Bolt enough to know if there are any weaknesses to expose. It will take a lot for Blake to win his first individual Olympic gold medal since his career took a major setback with injuries in 2013 and 2014. Maybe 2020?
Jimmy Vicaut, France
Personal best: 9.86 (2015, 2016)
Accomplishments: 2012 4×100-meter Olympic bronze medalist
Betting odds to win: +6600
France has never medaled in the men’s 100 meters. Vicaut’s only world championship and Olympic medals have come in relays. He set a personal best of 9.86 in early June but is usually more of a 9.9’s runner. This would be the biggest upset of the Olympics, and you can be sure Twitter and Google would enjoy a significant bump in searches for ‘Jimmy Vicaut.’