Usain Bolt finally ran out of magic.
After telling the world that he was unstoppable, Bolt faced his worst defeat in a decade Saturday night and ended his remarkable career by finishing third in the 100 metres at the world athletics championships. More troubling for the image of track and field, the winner was Justin Gatlin of the United States, a two-time doping offender who was booed loudly after the race.
"It's my first bronze," Bolt said afterward. "I'm a little bit disappointed but it is what it is. I came out here and did my best, what can I say?"
There was less of the swagger and dancing that has come to be Bolt's trademark after races. He has been winning for so long that fans have come to expect outrageous gestures and colourful dance moves from him. But this was different. From the qualification rounds on Friday to the semi-finals and final on Saturday, it was clear Bolt, now 30 years old, was not the same competitor. He'd qualified with the eighth fastest time on Friday and finished second in his semi-final heat, losing to 21-year old Christian Coleman of the U.S. And yet the crowd urged him on, hoping for one last miracle.
They stood, roughly 60,000 strong, as Bolt and the others settled into their blocks for the final and cheered wildly when the gun went off. But right from the start something wasn't right. Bolt has never been a great starter, but this was poor even by his standards. He was second last out of the blocks, giving up precious ground to Coleman and Gatlin, who flew out. In the past, Bolt could rely on his stupendous speed to make up for bad starts, but not on this night. He just couldn't catch them and finished third in 9.95 seconds. Gatlin won in 9.92 seconds followed by Coleman at 9.94.
"This is the first time that I've ever been to a championship when my start hasn't come together," he said. "It let me down this time. So I was really bad."
The crowd was largely stunned, torn between grudgingly recognizing Gatlin's victory and applauding Bolt's career. But even as Gatlin did a victory lap carrying an American flag, the boos rained down. Few could forgive his past infractions, which included a one-year ban in 2004 for testing positive for an amphetamine used in an attention deficit disorder drug and a four-year ban in 2006 for taking steroids.
"I really didn't focus on the boos tonight, through all my rounds. I kind of just zoned in on my lane," he said trying to shake off the hostile reception.
"It's kind of sad that my boos are a little louder than other people's cheers, but I wanted to keep it classy." He gave Bolt high praise and bowed down to him after the race. "At the end of the race I bent knee for Usain and paid homage to him. This night is still a magical night for track and field and for Usain Bolt. He's done so much throughout his career and I'm just happy to be one of his biggest competitors."
Bolt has been critical of Gatlin in the past and he has lashed out at drug use in the sport, warning athletes this week that if they didn't stop doping the sport would die. But on Saturday he played down any controversy about Gatlin and said the crowd was "a bit harsh.
"He's done his time," Bolt added. "If he's here that means it's okay. I always respect him as a competitor over the years."
But the questions about Gatlin won't go away and track now faces the prospect of losing its biggest drawing card and having the title of the sport's marquee event now held by a convicted doper. Gatlin bristled when asked if he understood why people were angry about his victory.
"I really don't need to understand," he said. "I've done my time. I've come back. I did community service. I talked to kids. I actually inspired kids … and that's all I can do. Society does that with people who made mistakes and I hope that track and field understands that too."
He added that he was not the bad boy portrayed by the media. "What do I do that makes me the bad boy? Do I talk bad about anybody? Do I give bad gestures? I don't. I shake every athlete's hand, congratulate them. I tell them good luck. That doesn't sound like the traits of a bad boy to me. It just seems like the media wants to sensationalize it and make me the bad boy because Usain's the hero, and that's fine."
There are several promising athletes coming up, Coleman and Canada's Andre De Grasse, who missed the championships because of injury. Coleman ran the fastest time of the year, at 9.84 seconds, and showed incredible poise in the final for his first major championships. He called the experience "surreal," adding that he was just thrilled to be lining up next to Bolt. Gatlin is also 35 years old and made it clear on Saturday that he may not be racing much longer, meaning the sport can move on to the young up and comers.
For Bolt, the question now turns to what's next? He has been a track sensation for nearly ten years, coming out of a poor region of Jamaica and winning every 100-metre and 200-metre race at the Olympics and world championships from 2008 to 2017. (He was disqualified from the 100 metres at the world championships in 2011 after false starting.) He's also set six world records and become a global icon.
"I'm excited to just live normal," Bolt said Saturday. "Just to get up and know that I have no training for once, I can just do what I want. I'm excited about that. I'm going to miss the sport for sure, but I get a chance to live now and do what I want, travel when I want, so it's exciting. I don't know where my career will go or what I'll do, but I look forward to it."
He said he would leave it to others to define his legacy. But he left little doubt that he was truly irreplaceable. "I'm just a different person," he said. "I'm unique. I do things differently than everybody else. I don't think there will be another me, for sure."