What. Just. Happened?
I know I saw it with my own eyes, and the results have settled in my brain, but I’m still in a state of…confusion? Did Usain Bolt just lose an international final? Did he lose two races in a row? Did he just close out his massive international individual career with a measly bronze medal? I saw it with my own eyes, the results have settled in my brain, but I’m still asking the question: what. just. happened?
And to Justin Gatlin? Him, of all people?
As much as we collectively despise him as a nation, you have to admit that there is something poetic about Justin being the one to pick Usain’s pocket in this moment. The villian has rewritten the story. The big, bad wolf huffed and puffed and not only blew the house down, but he caught and ate one of the little pigs.
And for all my confusion, I am probably one of the five Jamaicans who are not shocked. Because I saw it coming. Actually, I dreamed it. I woke up from a midday nap a couple weeks ago because the race had played in my head and Usain hadn’t won. I was mad as a wet fowl, and I refused to speak my fear lest it become a self fulfilling prophesy. It had me on edge up until today, when I was uncharacteristically nervous for Usain. Because who’s ever nervous for Usain? He’s always had everything under control. But if any of us are interested in being objective, we can admit that going through the rounds, something was clearly off about the king. Yes, he played to the crowd, he danced, he went through his usual paces, but there was a distinct lack of that energy and spark we all know and love.
His starts were terrible, but we never expect good starts from him in the 100m. It was the end phase of his race that had me concerned. Those last 40 or so metres where he’s typically so smooth and relaxed, his long legs eating up the distance between him and his competitors before leaving them to choke on his dust, were just not as ‘nice’ as we’re used to. And then he complained about the starting blocks! What?! When have you ever heard Usain Bolt complain about anything? He just goes out there and runs, nothing bothering him one bit. After watching the heats, my friend Keresa said something instructive: She said this would be the one medal he’d have to work the hardest for. Like a mere human being.
In the semis, I thought he looked good. He had gas left in the tank. I thought he allowed himself to get pipped, because he definitely could have caught Christian Coleman, but he let it slide. Probably to remind himself how mere mortals live, allowing himself to recall the taste of defeat to use it later to drive him to victory. At least that’s what I’m telling myself, and no one can disabuse me of that notion.
But then came the finals, and the pressure was just too much. I’m not talking just the pressure of the moment, but the pressure of a cold, hard year. If you’ll recall, he lost his best friend, Germaine Mason, in a terrible tragedy. That’s not the kind of thing you just recover from in a snap. And his body, that magnificent machine, has been having issues for ages, most of which we don’t know about. But he looked okay, and he thought he could do it, so he went after it. He never thinks he can’t do it. That is his strength. But his start was terrible again, and the tension just caught up with him. You could see it in his shoulders. He was not relaxed, teeth gritted in unfamiliar strain as he tried to snatch back control of the narrative. And, for the first time, failed.
Over in lane eight, the Villian was running the race of his life. No one saw him coming. No one cared that he was there, except perhaps those who are supposed to love him by virtue of being family and friends. As far as everyone was concerned, the race was between Usain and Christian, who were duking it out side by side. But every good story villian has his redeeming quality, and Justin’s is that when he gets it right, he gets it damned right. We don’t like him, but objectively, the man runs a mean 100m in really nice form. And he did it when it counted. He dethroned the king. He killed the hero.
That’s the part that’s going to stick in the craw of every Jamaican at home and abroad, losing to Justin Gatlin. It wasn’t supposed to happen, dammit. We would have preferred Andre De Grasse, the Canadian who fancied himself heir to the throne from last year’s Rio Olympics. Hell, we hate all Americans at track and field time, but we’d have even gone with Christian, the new kid on the block and the fastest man this year. But Gatlin? Unacceptable. Yet, it’s the result we’ll have to live with forever.
I wonder how Andre feels right now, knowing that what he had been telling himself since last year has come true, and he wasn’t the one to do it. All because he pushed himself just a little too hard in the preparation phase. This should have been his moment. But, alas.
I don’t want to accept this result. Every cell of my being is rejecting it like it’s a dose of poison. While I’m not shocked, or about to fall into the pit of depression, I am sad. As I said earlier this week, I wanted the king to go out in a blaze of glory. Bronze ain’t that. And you can never count a 4x100m relay medal before it’s hatched. There’s a crack in my heart, because the disappointment is real. So very real.
But can this result dent a stellar 15-year career that has included 29 medals, collected at every level and age-range in international competition? Can it take the shine off any of his mind-bending world records? If that thought even crosses your mind, you need to get your head examined, because you are ridiculous. Nothing, absolutely nothing can dull the shine of the myriad of golden moments to which he has treated us over the last 15 years, and especially over the last nine. Not. A. Thing.
If anything, this just proves that, despite the decade-long speculations to the contrary in news media around the world, Usain St Leo Bolt is human, just like the rest of us. He is not from another planet, he is not part machine. Just a 100 per cent human man, whom age and circumstances got the better of on one of the biggest nights of his life. And it’s not without precedent. The 100m final in Daegu 2011 ring a bell?
So, while I’m sad, and this will join the 2008 Olympics 100m final which I cannot watch again, ever (I was so besotted with Asafa Powell at the time, I didn’t even care about Usain. World Record what? Kmt!), I will still big up the big man, because Usain, you are the greatest ever. Still the best to ever do it. Still a legend. And nothing can take that away from you. Nothing. Not death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature. And even in the years to come, when other young men have rewritten the records (hopefully that’s still several years down the line), you will still be the benchmark to which every other sprinter is compared. You. The long foot bwoy from dung a Sherwood Content. The one who carried an entire sport on your back like a modern day Atlas, while carrying the joy of a nation inside your heart.
While everybody’s worrying about Usain, I’m just over here concerned about who is going to be our answer to Christian and Andre in 2019 and 2020, cuz we’re gonna have problems with those two. Who from Jamaica will take the baton from Usain to run the next leg? Will it be Julian Forte, who narrowly missed out on the finals? Or Michael O’Hara, whom we’ve been waiting to see since he ended his Boys Champs career in 2015? Or will Yohan Blake, who has all the chops to be the Chosen One, finally get everything right like he did in 2011? We’ll just have to wait and see.
Long story short, Usain might not be unbeatable, but he sure is irreplaceable.
We love you, Usain. We appreciate you. And that won’t stop because of tonight’s results. Thank you for all you have done to lift up Jamaica. This grateful fan says thanks, from the bottom of her heart.
For a more in-depth look at Usain’s legacy, read my latest blog post for diGJamaica.com.