RIO DE JANEIRO — Usain Bolt kneeled down and gave the track one final kiss, then flattened his hand, reached to the ground and slapped the white number “3” painted at the starting line.
Three Olympics, three races at each, three gold medals every time.
He could have just as easily slapped the number “1.” That would need no explanation.
The man who transcended track and became a world-class celebrity bid a blazing-fast farewell to the Rio de Janeiro Games — and, he insists, the Olympics altogether — Friday night with yet another anchor leg for the ages. He turned a close 4×100 relay race against Japan and the United States into a typical, Bolt-like runaway, helping Jamaica cross the line in 37.27 seconds.
“There you go,” he said. “I am the greatest.”
Japan won the silver medal, finishing .33 seconds behind.
The U.S. finished the race third but endured yet another relay debacle — disqualified because leadoff runner Mike Rodgers was ruled to have passed the baton to Justin Gatlin before the start of the first exchange zone. That promoted Canada to the bronze medal. The Americans were protesting the ruling, and as 1:30 a.m. Saturday approached in Brazil, there was no word on the outcome.
“It was the twilight zYeone. It was a nightmare,” said Gatlin, who, along with his teammates, found out about the DQ while parading the U.S. flag around the track. “You work so hard with your teammates, guys you compete against almost all year long. All that hard work just crumbles.”
If the ruling stands, it will mark the ninth time since 1995 the U.S. men have been disqualified or failed to get the baton around at the Olympics or world championships. (They blew a 10th medal, the silver at the London Games, after Tyson Gay’s doping positive.)
The disqualification will cause more hand-wringing in the States.
In Jamaica, they’ll party.
Less pressure when you know you’re the fastest man out there.
“As soon as I got the baton, I knew I was going to win this one,” Bolt said.
His record in Olympic finals improved to nine victories over nine events.
Nobody’s done that before, and nobody’s on the horizon to do it again soon.
Along for his final trip down the track were Nickel Ashmeade, training partner Yohan Blake and the Jamaican elder statesman, former world-record holder Asafa Powell.
When Bolt received the yellow baton from Ashmeade for his final run down the straightaway, he was even, or maybe a step behind Aska Cambridge of Japan and Trayvon Bromell of the United States.
That lasted about four steps.
With 70 metres to go, it was over. Bolt looked at the clock — same as he did when he won the 200 the night before. No world record, but he still has a piece of that one, too — it’s 36.84 seconds, set four years ago at the London Games. He also owns the records in the 100 (9.58) and 200 (19.19).
“I am just relieved. It’s happened. I am just happy, proud of myself. It’s come true,” said Bolt, who overcame a hamstring injury earlier in the summer, then shined throughout a seven-day, seven-race stint in Rio, counting all the heats. “The pressure is real. I look at it as an accomplishment.”
Musical selection for Bolt’s final parade around the track: Bob Marley’s “Jammin.”
With most of the other debates over about greatest this, greatest that, a new one might be whether Bolt has surpassed Marley as the most famous person from the country known for sea, sun and sprints.
“Usain has done so much,” Powell said. “It’s hard to explain. He’s just a great athlete. He’s a legend.”
Counting all the preliminaries, finals and his approximately nine-second blast down the stretch in Friday’s final race, Bolt has spent 325 seconds — a tad less than 5 1/2 minutes — running on the track at the Olympics since he made his debut in Beijing eight years ago.
Every tick of the clock has been a treasure. And while he may not close things out with 23 golds, the number Michael Phelps left Rio with earlier this week, it’s hard to argue there is anybody more successful or electric _ or important to his sport, and the Olympics themselves.
The anchor sport of the Olympics has been mired for decades, but especially over the past year, in a cesspool of doping, cheating and bad characters.
When Bolt’s on the track, everyone forgets.
“A great sprinter,” said Gay who, once upon a time, was Bolt’s biggest challenger. “Nine gold medals, words can’t even describe what he’s done for the sport.”
So much of that is because the show isn’t over when he’s through running.
After crossing the line for the last time, Bolt pumped his fist in the air, slowed down and took off those famous gold spikes. He huddled with his teammates and they prayed. Then, a final, luxurious lap around the track.
“I’ll stay up late tonight,” Bolt said when asked how he’d celebrate.
All week, when asked a hundred different ways if this really is his last Olympics, he kept saying yes. He said it once more as Friday night turned into Saturday morning.
“Yeah, this is the last one, guys,” said the champion, who turns 30 on Sunday, the same day the Olympic cauldron is extinguished.
Going so soon? It leaves the world to ponder: Without Bolt on the track, how will things ever be the same?