As he readies to mark the end of his remarkable career, Usain Bolt is looking almost human.
Bolt will run his last 100-metre race on Saturday at the World Athletics Championships but he didn't look like a world beater in the qualifying round on Friday. Even more notable for Bolt, he was uncharacteristically downbeat afterward.
"That was very bad, I stumbled coming out of the blocks," Bolt said, looking somewhat dejected after the race. He recovered from the slow start to win his heat, but it didn't look easy until the very end. He finished in 10.07 seconds, the eighth-fastest time in qualifying.
"The race over all was here and there. It wasn't the best start, but I got back into the race. I had to push myself a little bit," he added, before complaining about his starting blocks.
"I'm not very fond of these blocks. I think these are the worst ones I've ever experienced. I have to get this start together because I can't keep doing this."
Few would bet against Bolt in Saturday's final, given that he has never been beaten in a 100-metre race at the Olympics or world championships since 2008 (he was disqualified at the 2011 championships for a false start). He also tends to get better through qualifying rounds. But for the first time in a while, the 30-year old Jamaican is facing some serious challengers. Fellow Jamaican Julian Forte, 24, ran the fastest time on Friday at 9.99 seconds followed by 21-year old Christian Coleman of the United States, who finished in 10.01 seconds but has run 9.82 seconds this season.
"I have a lot confidence, I feel pretty good about my race," Coleman said after the race. "Everyone has the same goal to come out here and win. My mindset is always to get the victory and tomorrow will be no different."
While Bolt's best this year is 9.95 seconds, on Friday he said it will take something much faster to win. "For me, I will say 9.8 [seconds]. It should take 9.8, maybe 9.7. We'll see what happens, it's going to be good," he said.
Whatever happens, Bolt will go out as a hero to many and a global icon to most. No athlete aside from Muhammad Ali has managed to transcend his sport with the same mix of enthusiasm, accomplishment and pure joy as Bolt. On the track he has dominated his sport like no one else, winning eight Olympic gold medals and holding world records in the 100 metres, 200 metres and the 4x100-metre relay as a member of the Jamaican team.
But it's his fun-loving nature off the track that has won over so many fans. That was evident on Friday when he stepped on to the track for the first time and was met with raucous cheers from the roughly 60,000 fans jammed into the London Stadium. Some were doing Bolt's famed "lightning bolt" pose, something he came up with almost by accident after winning his first gold medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and that is now so popular it has been mimicked globally by movie stars, royals and former U.S. president Barack Obama.
"There will never be another Usain Bolt," Sebastian Coe, the head of track's governing body, the IAAF, said this week.
It's hard to imagine how track and field will cope without him. There are certainly plenty of incredible athletes competing in London and many aspiring world champions, such as Canada's Andre De Grasse, who was forced out of the championships because of an injury. But few have the personal charm and charisma of Bolt. The closest person in track terms is 25-year-old Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa, the world-record holder in the 400 metres and the only man to run under 10 seconds in the 100 metres, under 20 seconds in the 200 metres and under 44 seconds in the 400 metres. But even as Bolt conceded van Neikerk's talent, he noted his lack of personality.
"I think he's going to be a really good athlete and I'm pretty cool with him and he's a really nice guy," Bolt said this week when asked about the South African. "He just has a really enclosed personality. He doesn't really like to go out and talk, but he's a really cool person."
Bolt's biggest challenge will be finding something to replace the rush of running and winning. For someone who grew up in rural Jamaica and only got into track because his cricket coach saw how fast he ran while bowling, Bolt has come a long way and endured enormous pressure from a country desperate to see him succeed. He also burst on to the scene just as track was struggling to come to grips with a wave of doping violations and questions about the future of the sport. Consider that, of the six men who have run faster than 9.79 seconds in the 100 metres, Bolt is the only one who hasn't committed a doping violation.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," Bolt said this week when asked about his future. It won't be easy. Unlike other sports such as tennis, golf or even hockey, there aren't many "old timer" 100-metre events or charity races for former sprinters. He wants to play soccer, possibly for Manchester United, do some acting or travel the world as an ambassador for the sport. "It's going to be hard because track and field is everything for me. I've been doing it since I was 10 years old," he said.
But he's always been on the lazy side, never one to shy away from partying and famous for being caught out by paparazzi with a variety of women. "Some people always wanted me to stop partying – but no, that's me," Bolt told Britain's Guardian newspaper last year. "It's something I enjoy. I've always tried to live my life the way I wanted to, so I can be a good role model."
On Friday his mother, Jennifer, and father, Wellesley, were in the stands to watch. They'll be back on Saturday to see if he can claim his 12th world title and add one more piece to his growing legacy (he's also racing in the 4x100-metre relay).
This week Jennifer was asked what it was like to watch her son run so fast. "It is so exciting," she said. "You want to cry. It's just a funny feeling but it's joy and overwhelming."