RIO DE JANEIRO – Usain Bolt carved his name deeper into Olympic legend when he came from behind to reel in Justin Gatlin and win his third-straight 100-meter gold medal at the Rio Games on Sunday.
The Jamaican, who is aiming to sweep the board with all three sprint titles for a third consecutive Olympics, trailed Gatlin for most of the race after making a poor start but came through to edge his rival by 0.08 seconds in a time of 9.81.
“This is what I came here for,” said Bolt, who will also try to defend his 200- and 4×100-meter titles this week in Rio. “This is the first step in the right direction. I’m happy, I’m proud of myself. It wasn’t perfect execution but I got it done.”
Gatlin claimed the silver in a time of 9.89 ahead of Canada’s Andre de Grasse, who took bronze in 9.91 in front of Jamaican Yohan Blake in 9.93.
Gatlin streaked out of the blocks and looked like he might make his lead stick until Bolt settled into his stride over the last 30 meters, coming through to cross the line with a pat of his chest and a wag of his finger.
“I got a bad start,” said the 29-year-old. “But all I could tell myself was ‘listen, don’t panic, take your time and work your way back.’ And that’s what I did.
“I knew that was going to happen. He always gets a good start, so I just told myself to take my time and chip away at the lead.”
The crowd at Rio’s Olympic Stadium greeted Bolt’s arrival with a deafening roar but showered Gatlin, who has twice been banned for doping, with a chorus of boos.
“You hear everything,” said Gatlin, who stood stony-faced as the jeers rang out around the stadium. “But you have to tune that kind of thing out. When people come out they get enthralled with the excitement, I understand that. And there’s a lot of Usain Bolt fans. But they don’t know me. They don’t know Justin.”
Bolt’s winning time was far behind his own world-record mark of 9.58 seconds, and the Jamaican blamed the turnaround of just over an hour between semifinals and final for the slow pace.
“It was very hard to run fast because the turnaround time was really short,” said Bolt, who clocked a semifinal time of 9.86. “It was ridiculous as far as I’m concerned because I felt so good in the semifinals. I was like, ‘I probably could run a fast time.’
“But by the time you get back and start warming up again, it’s time to go back out. So to me it was really stupid. I don’t know who decided that. That’s why the race was slow.”
De Grasse pushed Gatlin all the way for silver only to miss out by 0.02 seconds, but the 21-year-old was satisfied with his achievement having also set a new personal-best time.
“I saw Bolt go at about 70-80 and I tried to go with him, but he just had that extra gear,” said De Grasse, who also took bronze in the 100 at last year’s world championships.
“I knew I was in contention for a silver medal and I just tried to lean at the line and fortunately I came up with bronze, so I’m still pretty happy about my performance.”
Gatlin also lost to Bolt in the 100-meter final at last year’s world championships in Beijing, but the 34-year-old American insists there is no ill-feeling between the pair.
“I have the utmost respect for Usain,” said Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic 100-meter champion. “When he comes away from the track he’s a great guy, he’s a cool guy. There is no rivalry between us, there is no bad blood. I’m a competitor, he’s a competitor, and he has pushed me to where I am today, and I hope that he can say the same about me.
“When comes down to it, I guess I’ve given him his closest race in all his career. So at the age I’m at right now, it’s a true honor.”
Japan’s Ryota Yamagata and Aska Cambridge both bowed out in the semifinals.
Yamagata, racing two lanes away from Bolt in the second semifinal, came home in fifth and set a new personal-best time of 10.05.
“I had a good start in the qualifiers, and I knew that if I could fix the bad things from that race then I could get a better time in the semis,” said Yamagata.
“I’m very proud to set a new personal best at the Olympics.”
Cambridge raced against Gatlin in the third semifinal but got off to a bad start and finished seventh in a time of 10.17.
“My time was slower than in the qualifiers, so it’s disappointing,” said Cambridge, who qualified for the semifinals with the equal-eighth-best time of the heats. “I didn’t get a good start because my body stiffened up.”