RIO DE JANEIRO – “More than the greatest” was how Yohan Blake described his Jamaican teammate Usain Bolt after Friday night’s 4×100-meter relay final at the Rio Games.
Given that Bolt had just swept the sprint gold medals for a third straight Olympics, giving him a total of nine overall, it was difficult to argue with Blake’s assessment.
Bolt embellished his reputation as one of the greatest-ever Olympians when he completed the “triple triple” on Friday night, bowing out with a perfect record that never seriously looked in danger at any of the three Summer Games he competed in.
The margins between finishing first and second can be miniscule, and one defeat does not tarnish everything that has gone before in the career of a truly great athlete.
But while three-time gold medal-winning wrestler Saori Yoshida saw her crown slip in Rio, Bolt refused to allow any such mishaps.
“We always get it right,” said Bolt after the relay. “It might not be perfect passes but we always get the baton around. And as long as I get the baton in my hand, it’s going to be different.
“I’m unbeatable. People always ask me if I’m unbeatable, but when it comes to a championship, personally I think I am. I got that phrase from an interview one time and it feels good to use it because I’ve done so much at the Olympics over the years.”
The crackle of expectation around the Olympic Stadium each time Bolt has competed this week has truly been an experience to savor. Rio 2016 knows it is in the presence of a genuine once-in-a-lifetime superstar, and Bolt himself has looked wistful as he tries to soak up every last moment of what he insists will be his final Olympics.
“I have a saying: ‘Nothing is impossible,'” said Bolt. “I never set limits for myself. I’ve always wanted to push the barriers and that’s what I did. I accomplished what I wanted to and it’s a joy. I’m happy. There’s nothing else I can do but push on and enjoy what I’ve done over the years.
“I will have to make a new bucket list. Now I will have to make new goals and then I will take that on. But now I just want to relax and take a vacation.”
But will Bolt, who turns 30 on Sunday, go back on his word and compete at the Tokyo Olympics in four years’ time? Stranger things have happened.
British sprinter Linford Christie was 32 when he won gold in the 100 meters at the 1992 Barcelona Games, and he also appeared in the final in Atlanta four years later only to be disqualified for two false starts.
But Bolt has shown little interest in taking on the training regimen that would be needed to defend his crown in Tokyo, and perhaps it is better to remember his perfect achievements frozen and untainted forever.
“Hard work, man. Hard work and sacrifice,” Bolt said when asked how he had won his nine gold medals. “I’ve been through so much. It’s just sweat and tears, man. Sweat and tears.
“This is my last Olympics. I’m sorry guys, but this is the last one.”
Track and field, however, is a sport that has done its best to undermine its own credibility in the public’s eyes. The merest hint of Bolt doping would have unthinkable consequences for the entire Olympic movement, but the man himself insists he has nothing to worry about.
“I don’t think my legacy would be tarnished,” said Bolt, when asked how he would react if a positive doping retest for 4×100 teammate Nesta Carter from the Beijing Games would mean Jamaica’s victory in that event being wiped from the record books.
“I have proved it over and over again that I have done it clean, so it’s no stress. It’s not what I want but it’s life. What are you going to do? It’s not something I have control over.”
Such an easygoing attitude is what has earned Bolt the adoration of fans around the world, and Jamaica has reaped the benefits of his enormous success too.
“I’m a great ambassador,” said Bolt. “I try to live up to my country’s needs, I’ve always tried to push my country on top and be the best that I can be. I’ve brought more tourists to my country, more jobs. I’ve done as much as I possibly can for my country and will continue to do so after I retire from the sport. I will continue to uplift my country.”
Whatever he does next, Bolt has already left his indelible mark on the world.