Sprint legend Usain Bolt changed everything, including the sport’s architecture.
At the peak of the lanky Jamaican’s prominence, whatever lane he occupied led directly to the top of the podium, leaving seven other finalists to position themselves for silver and bronze at the predictable end of a 100- or 200-metre showdown.
He retired in 2017 as the proud owner of the world record in both races, 9.58 seconds and 19.19 seconds respectively, as well as eight Olympic gold medals. Later this month, the first post-Bolt Games will unfold in Tokyo, promising some genuine sprinting intrigue as a replacement for his dominance and showmanship.
“As scintillating as it was to watch Bolt, it’s even more exciting knowing you don’t know who is going to win the race and it could be changed up at any moment,” said Canadian sprinter Aaron Brown, who qualified for both the 100m and 200m but has dropped the shorter distance for Tokyo. “It definitely gives the rest of us more energy to go out there and challenge for podiums because we know it’s within reach.”
Even so, the spotlight has been focused largely on the holes in the men’s field — Bolt’s retirement, Christian Coleman’s suspension for whereabouts infractions and Justin Gatlin’s failure to make the Olympic team — rather than the field itself. That will change soon enough.
“I think the focus should be on who is there,” said Athletics Canada’s head coach Glenroy Gilbert. “These are the people who have navigated through a global pandemic to qualify for the Olympics.”
It can be argued that a handful of people have navigated best through Bolt’s prolonged absence from the sprint scene. Coleman, though suspended for Tokyo, was the world’s fastest man through 100m in 2018 and world champ in 2019. Michael Norman topped the charts in 2020 at 9.86 seconds. And Trayvon Bromell heads to the Games with the two fastest times in the world this season, 9.77 and 9.80, enough to cement his status as race favourite.
“Bromell is showing great promise,” Bolt told the Associated Press recently. “I must say, it’s something I’m looking forward to. He’s been a talent over the years and proven himself to be good. … The fact I get to watch, it’s wonderful and it’s a breath of fresh air for me. But I’m competitive. And just to see somebody going out there and winning the 100m without me is going to be weird.”
In the post-Bolt 200m, it has been all Noah Lyles, all the time. He’s the reigning world champion, has run a world-leading 19.74 this year, and won the U.S. trials ahead of Kenneth Bednarek and 17-year-old sensation Erriyon Knighton, who ran 19.84 in the final to beat Bolt’s U18 (20.13) and U20 (19.93) world records. He’ll be at his first Olympics in Tokyo and is another good bet for the final, along with Nigeria’s Divine Oduduru, Trinidad and Tobago’s Jereem Richards, and Canadians Andre De Grasse and Brown.
“I think it is the new wave of athletes, the next generation, slowly taking over the mantle, and I want to be a part of it and show that I’m in the mix, among those people who can challenge for podium spots in Tokyo,” said Brown.
With three spots again up for grabs, the dynamic will be dramatically different for anyone in a sprint final at these Games.
“Even if you were considered a top-10 sprinter in the world a few years back, you thinking of winning gold was very hard to imagine when you have a Usain Bolt,” said former Canadian sprint king Nicolas Macrozonaris. “Now, anybody with the eye of the tiger, whoever is the best competitor, is going to change their lives forever. They’re going to be known as an Olympic champion. It’s very stressful. I think it’s going to be more stressful for De Grasse this time around than it was in Rio, because now you actually have a chance to win this.
“It sucks that nobody is getting noticed right now, but the day after the 100m, it’s going to be a whole different story. More and more we’ll be talking about the new kid, the new champ, and less and less about Gatlin and Bolt.”
At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, De Grasse was third in the 100m and second to Bolt in the 200m. At the first post-Bolt world championships in Doha in 2019, De Grasse took bronze in the 100m behind Coleman and Gatlin, then silver in the 200m, behind Lyles and ahead of Ecuador’s Álex Quiñónez.
“As you’ve seen in the past, Andre has really got two really good chances,” said Gilbert. “To say whether one is stronger than the other is kind of difficult. I think he’s certainly a medalist in both if you look at the way he performed in Doha and Rio, he gets up for these type of competitions. The Olympics and world championships are big, and it’s important for him to perform well there.”
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It takes time to establish dominance, and there is little room for error. Bolt repeatedly came through in the biggest moments as the back-to-back-to-back Olympic champ in the 100m and 200m and he won seven individual gold medals at the world championships. But more than that, he also came up large when the eyes of the world were mostly elsewhere. In fact, he won 80 per cent of the 100m, 200m and 400m races he ran between 2001 and 2017. He won 193 times, finished second in 31 races and third in eight. He was most dominant in the 100m, winning 89 per cent of his 85 races. He won 79 per cent of his 200m runs and 61 per cent of his 400m races. Including one DQ, he finished off the podium just seven times.
“There’s nobody who is going to be as consistent,” said Macrozonaris. “If you look back in sprints, generally speaking, excluding Marion Jones who was on seven different types of performance enhancing drugs, excluding Ben Johnson, who in recent memory dominated running like Usain Bolt? Nobody. Having a long, dominating sprint career is extremely rare.”