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Usain Bolt enhanced his already legendary Olympic status with an unprecedented third consecutive 100m, 200m and 4x100m triple at Rio 2016, a feat that may well never be repeated. The holder of the world records at all three distances and an 11-time world champion, the Jamaican star bid farewell to the Olympic stage by celebrating his 30th birthday on the day of the Closing Ceremony of the Rio Games.
A brilliant junior athlete, Bolt made his Olympic debut as a 17-year-old at Athens 2004, where, hampered by a torn hamstring, he went out in the opening round of the 200m. Yet by the time he returned to the Games at Beijing four years later, the tall Jamaican sprinter was a firm favourite to claim an Olympic sprint double, having set a new 100m world record of 9.72 seconds in late May in New York, followed by the fastest 200m of the year, 19.67, a few weeks later in the Greek capital.
Taking to the track at the Bird’s Nest in his distinctive gold spikes, Bolt duly etched his name in track and field history, trimming his world record to 9.69 and winning the 100m at a canter, so much so that he was celebrating victory with arms outstretched 20 metres from the line. Another gold and another world record followed in the 200m, with the Jamaican clocking 19.30 to eclipse Michael Johnson’s time at Atlanta 1996. A third gold and a third world record followed in the 4x100m relay, Bolt running a lightning-fast final bend as he, Nesta Carter, Michael Frater and Asafa Powell clocked 37.10 between them.
“I want to share it with my team,” said Bolt after completing his hat-trick. “It’s down to them that I beat the world record today. When you beat the relay world record, you feel four times happier.” His unprecedented achievement of setting three world records in winning three sprint golds made him the star of Beijing 2008 along with US swimmer Michael Phelps, and earned him an ecstatic reception on his return to Jamaica in early September.
Bolt consolidated his status as a global superstar at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin the following year, trimming 0.11 seconds off his 100m world record, taking it down to 9.58, and setting a new 200m world record of 19.19. Both times are yet to be beaten.
The only major title that eluded by Bolt after Beijing 2008 was the 100m at the 2011 Worlds in Daegu, where he was disqualified for a false start in the final. Determined to atone for that setback, he arrived at London 2012 with his sights firmly set on more gold. Savouring the atmosphere in the British capital, Bolt said: “What I liked about London was definitely the crowd. For me, it was the energy, and surprisingly the stadium was always full, no matter what time of day. I came out for the heats of the 100m, which was early, and it was ram-packed of people. It was a great reception. It was a wonderful experience.”
Bolt drew on that energy to retain the 100m, 200m and 4x100m titles, the Jamaican star linking up with Frater, Carter and Yohan Blake in the last of those three events to run 36.84, yet another world record. Reflecting on his unprecedented second “triple triple”, he said: “There was a little bit more pressure, but it didn’t bother me as much. But there was a different expectation from me. I went out there just to show the world that I could do it again. That was my focus and I got it done, so it was good. It was a long season but I accomplished what I came to London to do. I’m very proud of myself.”
Further world championship triples came at Moscow in 2013 and Beijing in 2015, taking his collection of world titles to a staggering 11, more than any other athlete. In collecting his massive array of golds, the Jamaican made his signature “Shh” gesture and “Lightning Bolt” celebration pose a familiar sight at arenas all over the world.
When it came to confirming his supremacy in his three events at Rio 2016, the Jamaican superstar had to dig deeper than ever, coming from behind in the last 50 metres to win the 100m in a time of 9.81, and then grimacing as he crossed the line in the 200m in 19.78, his slowest time in a major championship. “I don’t know about the 200m in the future,” he said afterwards. “Next year at the World Championships it will likely just be the 100m, even though my coach keeps trying to convince me otherwise. But personally for me, I think this is the last time I will run the 200m. I wasn’t happy with the time and my body did not respond down the straight. But I’m getting older, so I am pleased to get the gold medal.”
After winning the 4x100m title in Brazil with Asafa Powell, Nickel Ashmeade and Blake to make it nine Olympic golds out of nine, Bolt confirmed that he had made his last appearance at the Games and that the 2017 World Championships in London would be his swansong as an athlete. Explaining the recipe for his success, he said: “It’s hard work, sweat and sacrifice. I’ve sacrificed so much throughout the season, throughout the years. I’ve been through so much. I knew this moment would come. I’ve got mixed feelings about it. I don’t have the words to describe my three trebles. I’m going to miss this sport and I’m going to miss the Games because it’s the biggest event possible for any athlete. But I’ve proven that I’m the greatest in this sport and, for me, it’s mission accomplished.”