Nobody has been a bigger star on the track than Usain Bolt. Sure, it helps that he has one of the coolest names in sports, but he’s one of the boldest personalities the sport has ever seen, and he has obliterated records in some of track and field’s most hallowed events, including the 100m and 200m races.
So the scene in London, where the 2017 World Championships were being held, was electric for Bolt’s final individual race, one last 100m dash as a professional sprinter. He had a couple strong competitors in the field to challenge him, including a young upstart American, 21-year-old Christian Coleman. But he was clearly the star of the show, with the London crowd showering him in applause from the moment he emerged from the tunnel.
And in the end, Coleman wasn’t the only sprinter who got the better of Bolt. Longtime U.S. track star Justin Gatlin—who was soundly booed by the London crowd before and after the race—finally triumphed over the Jamaican sprinter, handing Bolt his first legitimate loss in a major race. In a photo finish, the 35-year-old American came out on top, with Coleman and Bolt finishing second and third respectively.
To put the third-place finish into perspective, the only two non-wins in Bolt’s major-event career were the result of things that took place before or after a race, never during one. A false start took him out of the running at the 2011 World Championships, and after relay teammate Nesta Carter tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, Bolt’s 4×100 relay team was stripped of their gold medals from the 2016 Rio Olympics. Aside from that, Bolt has been perfect between the lines.
Yet even in defeat, love for Bolt would not subside. Rather than diminish what he’d accomplished by mocking his third-place finish at the World Championships, many fans saluted a track icon who had already proven himself many times over.
There was something symbolic about the race, with Bolt stumbling to what has become an almost trademark slow start, unable to summon the same recovery and final-stretch speed he flashed year after year on the track. It was as if Bolt and the audience finally had to face the slow creep of Father Time, showing that even super humans have a limit to their powers.
Despite having every reason to pout, however, Bolt was gracious in defeat, embracing Gatlin with a hug and pacing slowly around the stadium, saying goodbye to his fans one final time. Confronted by his own mortality, Bolt was gregarious and personable as ever, not forgetting why those fans loved him in the first place.
So while the third-place finish was a disappointing way to see him go out, particularly after he could have retired on top after the 2016 Rio Olympics, it was wonderful to see nothing could kill Bolt’s spirit. Years from now, when his ability to hit top speeds has long since diminished, him remaining upbeat will be a lot more important than where he finished in his final race.