RIO DE JANEIRO – Usain Bolt has done the hard part.
Now it seems only a cruel slice of misfortune can prevent him from ascending even higher into the pantheon of Olympic greats at the Rio Games this week.
Bolt completed the first leg of what he hopes will be an unprecedented “triple-triple” of sprint titles this week in Brazil, coming from behind to overtake Justin Gatlin and win the 100 meters in front of a raucous Olympic Stadium crowd on Sunday night.
It was neither easy nor pretty but Bolt got the job done, eating up the ground on Gatlin after a slow start to come through and cross the line in a time of 9.81 seconds.
“I came here to prove to the world that I’m the best, again,” said Bolt. “It’s a good start and I’m just really happy. I wasn’t worried. After the semifinals my confidence went way up because I executed really well.”
It seems unthinkable that the 100-meter title — the jewel in the Summer Games crown — could be considered a mere stepping stone on the way to something bigger.
But Bolt can now look toward his stated goal of winning all three sprint titles, including the 4×100 relay, for a third straight Olympics with substantially more confidence, after shaking off Gatlin in a race that he was far from guaranteed to win.
Questions surrounded Bolt’s fitness after he withdrew from the Jamaican trials with a tear in his left hamstring only last month, and Gatlin’s momentum had been building ever since losing to his great rival at the world championships last August in Beijing.
The planets looked to be aligning for Gatlin when he raced into an early lead on Sunday and stayed there for the first 70 meters, but that was the point where the difference between good and great became clear to the millions watching around the world.
“I was so tunnel vision going into the last couple of meters,” said Gatlin, when asked if he was aware of Bolt passing him. “I came close to the line and I looked up at the screen because I didn’t even know where I placed.”
All Gatlin would have seen was Bolt charging off to celebrate with the adoring Rio crowd, with the Jamaican’s vibrant personality and easy charm connecting with fans in a way that Gatlin could only dream of.
Gatlin, who has twice been banned for doping, was booed relentlessly when he came out onto the track before the race. That may not have been as personal as some took it — the crowds at Rio 2016 have been quick to boo any athlete facing their heroes — but the 34-year-old bristled at the wave of animosity all the same.
“I didn’t really focus on the boos because when I looked at the stands I saw so many American flags,” said Gatlin. “More than I’ve ever seen at any championship. So I’m so happy that there were so many Americans coming here to represent the United States. Not only for me but for so many of my countrymen here. That’s what I was focused on.”
Bolt’s attention will now turn to the 200 meters, an event where his rivals look to have even less chance of knocking him off his throne.
The 29-year-old will have a day to recover from the semifinals before he races in Thursday’s final — unlike the mere 80-something minutes he was afforded in Sunday’s 100 — and already the signs are looking ominous for those sprinters looking to stop him.
“You know me when it comes to the 200 meters,” said Bolt. “I’m much more confident. The fact that I would get a day rest would be much better. So that’s the good thing. I felt good in the semifinals because I had a day rest, so I’m looking forward to the 200 meters.”
Rio 2016 has had its first taste of Bolt’s star power in all its brilliant glory, and the world will again stop to watch when he attempts the second leg of his bid for Olympic immortality.
Few would bet against him succeeding.