LONDON — On Usain Bolt’s last day of being the fastest man alive, he crossed paths with Justin Gatlin underneath Olympic Stadium. They had just finished their first heats of the 100-meter dash. Gatlin was doing an interview in the media tunnel. Bolt, walking past Gatlin from behind, pantomimed a karate kick to Gatlin’s head, delivered his world-famous grin, and sauntered off.
That was Friday, when Bolt was still invincible, on his way to immortality and the final individual race of his career. The moment captured the gulf between the mighty Bolt, toying with lesser athletes and prevailing time after time, and the beleaguered Gatlin, track and field’s punching bag who labored in Bolt’s shadow.
Then came Saturday.
Bolt finishing third in the World Championships was as inconceivable as Steph Curry dunking on LeBron James, Ronaldo scoring on his own goal, or Tom Brady being traded to the New York Jets. Since Bolt’s first Olympic victory in 2008, no one had ever outrun him in a championship. Yes, he was often slow out of the starting blocks, but the Jamaican always chased everyone down with his unmatchable top-end speed.
Now the so-called drug villain defeated the savior. As if anyone in the sport can be truly counted on to be clean. Even Bolt, whose one-year improvement from 10.03 to 9.69 in the 100 has been questioned by such royalty as Carl Lewis, and whose country has had less than stringent testing procedures.
Even without the good-versus-evil narrative, Gatlin has earned redemption.
He won gold in the 100 at the 2004 Athens Games, before Bolt came on the scene. In 2006, Gatlin tested positive. (He had previously served an arguably unfair one-year suspension while at the University of Tennessee for a stimulant in his prescribed attention deficit disorder medication.) In 2008, while Gatlin was serving his suspension, Bolt took over with a 9.69 world record.
Bolt proceeded to build his legend, winning gold in the 100, 200 and 4×100 at the Beijing, London and Rio Olympics and lowering his 100 world record to 9.58 at the 2009 worlds in Berlin. Gatlin could only beat him once, in an insignificant 2013 race when Bolt was coming off an injury. The challenge embedded itself so deeply in Gatlin’s psyche that, in the 2015 world championships, Gatlin led an out-of-shape Bolt in the final meters but tightened up, stumbled through the finish and lost by .01 of a second.
But the two life stories changed Saturday. Bolt is still the greatest sprinter in history and one of the most dominant athletes ever, but he has finally been humbled. And Gatlin will always be the Man Who Beat Bolt.
How could this have happened?
Bolt turns 31 on Aug. 21. His balky back bothered him this season. He dislikes training. He chose not to run the 200 at this meet because the preparation was too grueling. In April, he was devastated by the death of one of his best friends, British high jumper Germaine Mason, who died in a motorcycle crash in Jamaica after seeing Bolt that same night.
But Bolt had overcome injures and lack of preparation many times before. That top gear always kicked in. It’s safe to assume Bolt was overconfident coming into London. “I’m not worried about losing,” Bolt told me in May. “The 100 meters, it’s much more technical than anything else. As long as I get in shape and work on my technical aspect of training, I’ll be fine.”
Gatlin’s winning time of 9.92 is slow for a world championship. Bolt won Rio in 9.81; Gatlin finished second in 9.89. Gatlin deserves immense credit for seizing the moment and finally conquering his nemesis, but Bolt should always regret leaving the door open for Gatlin to win.
Bolt could have retired at the pinnacle, after Rio. He will run the 4×100 here, which has suddenly become a competition rather than a valediction. Then he will retire. Gatlin, meanwhile, says his young son wants to go to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
In recent years, Bolt has spoken often of standing alongside the likes of Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali, larger-than-life figures who transcended sports. Now, Bolt’s ending is more like Jordan’s and Ali’s than he would have liked. Jordan could have exited with the winning shot in the NBA Finals, but came back a shell of himself with the Wizards. Ali was sadly and brutally pummeled in his final fight.
They all stayed too long.