Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

James Lawton: Usain Bolt elevates already great Olympics

The moment of glory for Usain Bolt in the men's 100 metres final (AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

It wasn't as though Usain Bolt had to address a shortfall of heroes. He had only to confirm his status as the fastest, most phenomenal athlete in the history of the Olympics and when he did this so beautifully, so witheringly, we could finally relax, truly, about the status of London 2012.

No Olympics can aspire to the highest rank without the imprint of the greatest of competitors and while the traditional pass-mark commendation of a "great Games", when IOC president Jacques Rogge addresses the world at Sunday's closing ceremony was already assured, Bolt held out the promise of something more.



It was more of the oxygen which allowed all who cared about the meaning of sport to breathe more easily under the weight of Chinese authoritarianism in Beijing four years ago.



Bolt supplied it in great draughts when he astounded the world in the Bird's Nest stadium and this week the intervening years just shrivelled away.



We were back in that same state of wonder – eyes flashing to the electronic message board confirming the evidence of our eyes, which was that if Bolt had suffered troubling days since his last stunning world record win in Berlin three years ago, he had still performed miraculously well enough to smash his own Olympic mark.



It was interesting that when he finally closed down his various speeches to the world – we were well into the early hours of an ecstatic Jamaica's 50th Independence Day by then – he was less of the carefree vaudevillian and more of the sports statesman.



He did briefly join in the applause of the world's media before telling us that Thursday's 200 metres final represents the second leg of his ambition to become a legend. It sounded, just a bit, like Shakespeare aspiring to become a book of the month selection.



Bolt was for the ages when he chewed on his chicken nuggets in a celebratory feast in Beijing. Here he simply invited us to consider once again the extent of his impact, his life force in an event which has been restored as the single most compelling sub-10 seconds in all of sport.



Crucial to such contemplation is a sense of the twin responses to his breathtaking dash in Beijing. One was the elation which accompanies the certainty that you have seen something utterly exceptional.



The other was the fear that you might be duped.



That second reaction was more oppressive if you had happened to be in Seoul 20 years earlier when Ben Johnson made a run which, in its time, was no less sensational.



Certainly, it left the great Olympian Carl Lewis wide-eyed and slack-jawed as he trailed in a distant second. That Johnson, yellow-eyed and numb, tested positive was of course the single most damaging blow in the history of the Olympic competition.



Yet each day that passes in the wake of Bolt's supreme performances and his status remains clean is a deliverance we should not so easily forget.



If there was any tendency to do that in the wee hours of yesterday the bronze medallist American Justin Gatlin, a convicted doper who served a four-year suspension, was quick to draw us back to the recent, perilous past. At least that had to be the inference when he said how proud he was, at this late hour, to be part of a great moment in the history of sport.



This also reminded us that Bolt had not only reached out to the future but also delivered a kind of liberation. He had freed us to believe again in the most epic achievement.



For these Olympics it is the gift he promised and the one he has unearthed from a gloriously intriguing set of circumstances. If he mocked the idea that he was vulnerable to the extreme talent of his young compatriot Yohan Blake, he had also made his contribution to the doubts.



These were all but dispelled in the serenity of his progress through the semi-finals, after which the bookmakers took advice and changed his odds from 8-11 to 2-7, but enough of them lingered, at least in some minds, to fuel the acclaim when he slaughtered the field.



It was his gift to the Olympics, his huge reminder that if we have, maybe understandably, become preoccupied with domestic glory, there is a wider, deeper yearning beyond the league table of medals.



This is for the lineage of the greatest Olympic champions to come alive before our own eyes on our own soil.



Michael Johnson performed such a feat for the least uplifting of modern Olympics, the commercial, bomb-darkened beanfeast of Atlanta in 1996, when the reigning IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, pointedly refused to offer the saving description of a "great Games".



Here Bolt hasn't been a saviour –the need for that was already fading after the embarrassments of security recruitment and empty seats were consumed by the brilliance of the home army on so many Olympic fronts. He has been the supreme enhancer, the man who carried us higher, faster and stronger in the belief that anything is possible.



In Jamaica he has no doubt provoked a thousand calypsos. Here, he has simply made everybody pleased to be alive when an improbably great athlete passed by.



In the end, Bolt wasn't required to rescue these Olympics Games. It was enough that he should illuminate their every corner.



Murray has grown up in fine style



It will take more than Andy Murray's superb gold medal performance to persuade some of us that tennis, any more than golf, should be part of the Olympics, but this is not to diminish the significance of his defeat of Roger Federer.



At Wimbledon a few weeks ago Murray delivered the most convincing evidence so far that he might indeed produce enough of his game to win a Grand Slam tournament.



Now he has shown that on an indisputably important occasion, against the best of opposition, he can play to all his strengths. It is a great triumph not only for an extremely gifted sportsman but one who has looked at himself with a severely critical eye before it was too late.



The steely old champion Ivan Lendl should also take a huge bow here.



For a quiet man, Lendl has spoken with a thunderous voice. He said it was, competitively speaking, time to grow up. As rites of passage go, an Olympic medal is certainly a most decent start.



16 years on, the fire burns bright in Ben



Sixteen years ago a teenaged member of the Great Britain team seemed a little startled to be visited by a party of raddled refugees from the Atlanta Games. They had driven from Atlanta to Savannah, the agreeable hometown of the celebrated lyricist Johnny Mercer, and wanted to know if this precocious youngster might just help out his nation's lamentably small haul of medals while fiddling around in his little boat, which was apparently called a laser.



That would also have been a fair description of the eyes he turned on some of his less informed interrogators. However, he did say that if he failed, it wouldn't be for any lack of effort. Later, in the piano bar, someone remarked that the boy did seem extremely focused on the task in hand. He had enough of it, certainly, to win a silver medal – the precursor of an endless stream of gold. Ben Ainslie, in less pressing circumstances, might have borrowed the Mercer lines, "Moon River, wider than a mile, I'm crossing you in style some day".

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk

Latest Sport News

Stats Centre