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Usain Bolt is the only man in Muhammad Ali's league

by 11/08/2017 19:00:00 0 comments 1 Views
  • Usain Bolt bows out of the sport in the World Championships 4x100m relay 
  • The sport misses him already, especially with a lack of worthy replacements
  • Bolt is an era-defining sportsman matched only by Muhammad Ali in stature

By Martin Samuel - Sport for the Daily Mail

Published: 17:30 EDT, 11 August 2017 | Updated: 19:00 EDT, 11 August 2017

We're missing him already, obviously. Now Usain Bolt has surrendered his place at the summit of athletics to a drugs cheat in the sprint, and a runner whose nationality went on sale to the highest bidder in the 200 metres, the sport already knows what it has lost.

When he steps off the track for the final time in London on Saturday night, it will be the end of a sporting era defined by Bolt's presence. Who knows when we will see its like again?

Before Bolt, there was Muhammad Ali, the last great athlete to transcend the arena and captivate the globe. 'Ali could gaze out of airplane windows, down at Lagos, down at Paris and Madras, and be assured that almost everyone alive knew who he was,' wrote David Remnick in his biography, King of the World.

Usain Bolt has surrendered his place at the summit of athletics to a drugs cheat in the sprint
Usain Bolt has surrendered his place at the summit of athletics to a drugs cheat in the sprint

Usain Bolt has surrendered his place at the summit of athletics to a drugs cheat in the sprint

Justin Gatlin bows at the feet of Bolt after the American defeated the Jamaican in London
Justin Gatlin bows at the feet of Bolt after the American defeated the Jamaican in London

Justin Gatlin bows at the feet of Bolt after the American defeated the Jamaican in London

Bolt transcends sport in the way that only one man, Muhammad Ali, has done before
Bolt transcends sport in the way that only one man, Muhammad Ali, has done before

Bolt transcends sport in the way that only one man, Muhammad Ali, has done before

As social media shrinks our planet, a rising number of sport's celebrities can boast that. Yet Cristiano Ronaldo, even Lionel Messi, could not claim to be universally loved, as Ali was, or Bolt is.

That love, that humanity, is what sets them apart. There are great sporting men and women, there always will be. But two share the pinnacle. Like Ali before him, Bolt is everybody's guy. His is a universal fan club, an appeal beyond mere admiration, or even hero worship. He belongs to us all. His character steps out of the film we are watching and speaks. This is what we lose when he runs his last race.

Not just a supreme athlete, but the sportsman of a lifetime. And not just of this generation, but of previous and future generations, too. There was a quarter of a century between Ali and Bolt. There could be that again between Bolt and his successor; maybe even longer.

Watching the sport attempt to promote Wayde van Niekerk as worthy of Bolt's inheritance is pitiful. Van Niekerk is a good runner. We've seen good runners. Athletics meetings are full of them. 

Bolt was different; Bolt was a shooting star. It was his personality that strode away from the field, the connection he made with the wider world that cannot be captured or replaced. Someone else will win the 100m. 

Someone will always win the 100m. But that someone cannot be Bolt; just as no heavyweight champion since — and there have been many good ones — has ever been Ali.

Like Ali before him, Bolt is everybody's guy, with an appeal beyond mere admiration
Like Ali before him, Bolt is everybody's guy, with an appeal beyond mere admiration

Like Ali before him, Bolt is everybody's guy, with an appeal beyond mere admiration

Someone cannot be what Bolt has been to athletics just by winning races, he is a personality
Someone cannot be what Bolt has been to athletics just by winning races, he is a personality

Someone cannot be what Bolt has been to athletics just by winning races, he is a personality

Between his last fight against Trevor Berbick on December 11, 1981 and Bolt's first Olympic gold at the 2008 Games in Beijing, was a stretch of 26 years. There were incredible sporting feats and individuals in that time. Michael Jordan played out his entire career; Tiger Woods won all of his majors. Yet neither man, legends of the game, commanded the global gaze like Bolt or Ali.

Their sports have much to do with it. What events have the universality of a fight or a foot race? Simple, pure, familiar to every citizen of every nation. Woods was immense, but there are the best part of entire continents that will never understand the majesty of a well-struck one-iron.

Jordan is arguably the NBA's greatest but in his time major basketball matches were rarely glimpsed in countries such as the UK. At Jordan's peak, few here could even have told you what position he played. They just knew the name. 

Ali was known everywhere, his exploits shown everywhere — even in British cinemas — and Bolt too. Their titles were the blue riband of athletic prowess and achievement — heavyweight champion of the world, fastest man in the world — accessible and relatable. Nobody could do what Bolt did. He made it all look fun, too. No wonder everybody still wants to be in his gang.

Bolt made being the best there has ever been look fun and everyone wants to be his friend
Bolt made being the best there has ever been look fun and everyone wants to be his friend

Bolt made being the best there has ever been look fun and everyone wants to be his friend

In a world in which the best athletes are distanced from the public by money and the trappings of modern celebrity, Bolt always appeared as if he was one chance meeting and a selfie away from becoming a new best mate. 

Plainly, this wasn't true. But if he won the Olympic gold and met half of the Swedish women's handball team on his way out, the photographs would end up across every national newspaper. He ate chicken nuggets. He occasionally ran with his shoelaces undone. He was the ultimate star, yet also the everyman. It's too hard an act to just pull off. It could only come naturally.

Some think it a shame that his last race will be as part of a team, not an individual. Yet, if anything, it will shine an even greater light on what makes him special. From the moment he enters, he will command the stage. All eyes on Bolt, as ever.

Even as one leg of a relay he will remain the focus of attention. One last brilliant smile; one last mug for the camera; one last round of selfies; one last pose; one last wave; one last race. And then, gone.

Who knows when we will see his like again? Whatever the result, there will be sadness. It is not just athletics that has lost its greatest star; just as it wasn't boxing alone that said a teary farewell to Ali.

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