LONDON – Usain Bolt was ramping into warp speed when suddenly, stunningly, the sprint turned into a somersault.
Fifteen steps into the final homestretch of his final race, something gave in his left hamstring. The World’s Fastest Man skittered to a stop — hopping, skipping, jumping, then finally dropping to the ground and tumbling forward before coming to a rest.
While the winning team from Britain crossed the finish line, Bolt was writhing on the track, where he eventually wound up chest down with his face pressed into Lane 5. He was certainly every bit as stunned as any of the 60,000-plus who packed the stadium Saturday, or the millions watching one of the world’s most entertaining showmen make his final curtain call in the 4×100-meter relay at world championships.
There was no celebration. No gold, no silver, not even a consolation bronze, the likes of which Bolt received a week earlier in his final 100-meter race.
Jamaica closed the night with “DNF” by its name: Did Not Finish. Dead last. Bolt was helped into a wheelchair, but eventually got to his feet and, assisted by his teammates, limped gingerly across the finish line. He gave a few waves to the crowd, then left for the trainer’s room, and with that, presumably left track and field forever.
“Injuries are part of our sport and, always, of course, it’s sad to see,” said Wallace Spearmon, the American sprinter who has been close with Bolt for years and was on hand helping the U.S. team. “So, yeah, it’s tragic.”
The Jamaican team doctor, Kevin Jones, diagnosed the injury that brought a strange end to Bolt’s career as, simply, a cramp in the champion’s left hamstring.
“But a lot of pain is from disappointment from losing the race,” Jones said. “The last three weeks have been hard for him, you know. We hope for the best for him.”
Watching track’s No. 1 sprinter and celebrity dropping to the ground was nothing short of jaw-dropping — so much so that the fact that Britain won the race, outrunning a United States team that, somewhat amazingly, didn’t drop the baton, almost seemed like an afterthought.
Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake held off U.S. anchorman Christian Coleman down the stretch and the Brits won their first-ever world title in the 4×100 in 37.47 seconds.
When Bolt took the baton from Yohan Blake for his final homestretch, he was in third place, but that was no cause for concern. In virtually each of the seven relay golds he’s won at the Olympics and world championships, Bolt has reeled in the competition down the stretch and won going away, much the same as all his 100 victories have played out.
Five years and one day earlier, on the very same track, Bolt helped Jamaica set the world record. That run of 36.84 seconds earned Bolt the sixth of nine Olympic victories.
But last week in the 100, Bolt’s extra gear was not enough either to catch Coleman, who finished second, or to hold off Justin Gatlin, the oft-booed American who came from behind to finish first.
Could he have caught his relay competition in this one? Nobody will ever know. Bolt was gaining no ground at the 30-meter mark, which is when he felt the pain in his leg and went tumbling.
Afterward, there was plenty of second-guessing to be done. Most of it came at the expense of the IAAF, which made the sprinters wait about 40 minutes from the time they were summoned from the warm-up room to the time the starting gun went off.
“I think this is crazy,” Blake said. “Forty minutes. Waiting. Warming up. Waiting. Warming up. It just should not happen. To have your champion go out like that. It’s crazy.”
Said Gatlin, who remains insistent that Bolt will be back someday: “We lost all of our heat, all of our sweat, and we went out there cold.”
Part of the wait was for the U.S. women’s relay team to finish its victory celebration. Tori Bowie anchored the win and, with one day left in the meet, is the only athlete to win two gold medals in London. Also, a medal ceremony was held for Russian high jump champion Mariya Lasitskene, who is competing as a neutral athlete because of the doping crisis in her country and got to listen not to her own anthem, but to the IAAF’s theme song, as she stood on the podium.
Other winners included Kevin Mayer of France in the decathlon and Johannes Vetter, whose victory in the javelin throw gave Germany its first gold of the championships.
In the undercard to the relays, Muktar Edris held off Mo Farah of Britain in the 5,000. With help of his Ethiopian teammates, Edris won a tactical cat-and-mouse race and denied Farah his fifth straight long-distance double, counting world championships and Olympics.
It was a fun race to watch.
But nobody steals the show the way Bolt does.
As if to prove that point one last time, he did it again — this time without even finishing the race.
But with the young GB women’s sprint quartet storming to a silver of their own it felt like a generational shift as the stadium came alive just as it had at the 2012 Olympics.
Never before has a British team won a world sprint gold, but the quartet of CJ Ujah, Adam Gemili, Danny Talbot and Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake ran a near-perfect race to hold off the fancied US team, with Japan taking bronze as Bolt collapsed halfway down the home straight.
It was a horrible way for Bolt to end his career, his hamstring appearing to go as he attempted to chase down the two men in front of him.
A wheelchair was brought to his side before he was helped to his feet and managed to limp away, but it means he leaves his final championship with only a bronze from the individual 100m to show.
British sprint stars deliver for home crowd
Farah’s defeat had threatened to suck the noise out of the packed stadium, with Ethiopia’s Muktar Edris holding off his desperate late charge to become the first man to beat the Briton in a major final since his compatriot Ibrahim Jeilan did so over 10,000m at the 2011 Worlds in Daegu.
But then the British quartet of Asha Philip, Desiree Henry, Dina Asher-Smith and Daryll Neita went one better than their bronze at the Rio Olympics a year ago to take a brilliant silver behind the USA in 42.12 seconds, Jamaica taking bronze as that country’s disappointing World Championships continued.
The host nation had only Farah’s 10,000m gold to show for the first eight days of competition, the mood reflective rather than celebratory as the team racked up five fourth places.
In the space of 15 minutes, that mood was transformed.
Britain’s men had looked smooth in qualification on Saturday morning, and they then produced their best to shock the American favourites and light up the London Stadium.
Ujah got out of the blocks brilliantly, his reaction time to the gun of 0.124 secs the best in the field, before Gemili – who only a few weeks ago at the national trials looked a shadow of the athlete who finished fourth over 200m in Rio – powered down the back straight.
With each baton change exemplary, Talbot backed up the personal best he ran in the individual 200m with a fine bend, before Mitchell-Blake held his nerve and form to keep 100m silver medallist Christian Coleman at bay.
Not since GB’s team won gold at the Athens Olympics 13 years ago have they delivered in such glorious style, the display a vindication for both the practice the team have put in and the closeness between the individual components.
‘We are world champs!’
CJ Ujah: “I am proud of these guys and those behind the scenes. It is crazy to do this in London. I can’t even talk right now.”
Adam Gemili: “We are world champs! To run it with Danny Talbot after such disappointment in London 2012, it is so special to come back. Thank you to everyone. It’s crazy. Honestly a dream and a reality tonight. Wow!”
Danny Talbot: “2012 didn’t go our way and we have been working hard since then. It’s a massive team effort and we win as a team and lose as a team. We are world champions at home. We will never get this feeling again.”
Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake: “I wasn’t sure if I had won or not, I gave it my all but I could see Christian Coleman out of the corner of my eye. The feeling of euphoria was from infinity. I can’t register it. We smashed the British record to pieces.”
Bolt’s sorry farewell
Jamaica had been in third when Bolt took the baton, and the Usain of old would have believed he could have chased his rivals down.
But in his valedictory season, the three-time Olympic 100m and 200m champion is no longer the force he was, even as his draw remains undimmed.
And 50m down the straight, he grimaced and pulled up before collapsing into his lane, his fall lost in the bedlam for the British triumph.
Few had seen the greatest career in athletics history ending like this, and Bolt must now regret not stepping away after his three golds in Rio.
Along with Farah, he has been the untouchable, unbeaten star of the last decade, but the mantle – and the baton – has now passed to the next generation.
Analysis – GB beat everyone fair and square
Eight-time world champion Michael Johnson on BBC One
This wasn’t a win where the USA dropped the baton or Jamaica ran out of the zone – Great Britain beat everyone fair and square. That was an amazing performance in front of a crowd that has been wanting a gold medal.
They delivered it on a night where everyone was here maybe not necessarily to see this – but it is an amazing story for a team who worked really hard.
Adam Gemili was just ridiculous down the back stretch. He opened such up a gap that was always going to be hard for anyone to chase down.
This is a special gift to this crowd and for those guys to go out there and put on a performance like that is fantastic. They deserve this.
We smashed it – GB women
Daryll Neita, who held off Jamaica by 0.07 on the anchor leg, said: “We smashed it. We worked so hard for this.
“I tried my best down that last stretch and I’m glad to bring the team home to silver. We work so hard as a team so we are delighted.”
Dina Asher-Smith, who finished an agonising fourth over 200m after an injury-hit season, added: “To upgrade from Olympic bronze to world silver with these girls has been absolutely incredible, and to do it at home means so much.”
Usain Bolt is widely acknowledged as the greatest sprinter of all time.
As the Jamaican prepares to retire after the World Championships in London, here are 9.58 reasons why he deserves to be called a legend, and how he achieved it.
He is the fastest runner in history. Bolt has set the past three world records at 100m, and it is nine years since he first broke it.
How the 100m world record has fallen over time
Bolt beat compatriot Asafa Powell’s record of 9.74 seconds by clocking 9.72 in May 2008, then lowered it to 9.69 at the Beijing Olympics later that year.
At the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, he shaved more than a tenth of a second off his record, clocking 9.58 seconds.
Back in 1912, American Donald Lippincott ran 10.6 seconds in Stockholm to set the first time recognised by the sport’s newly founded governing body, the IAAF.
Jim Hines, in 1968, was the first man to officially dip under 10 seconds, but it took almost a century for Lippincott’s time to be bettered by a whole second – courtesy of Bolt.
He has run faster, more often. The IAAF’s pre-London list of all 100m runs under 10 seconds shows just a handful of rivals come close to Bolt’s times.
Every 100m run under 10 seconds
Athletes in alphabetical order, Bolt and fastest rivals highlighted
Since Hines, another 124 men have beaten the 10-second mark.
But no-one except Bolt, fellow Jamaicans Yohan Blake and Asafa Powell, and Americans Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay (highlighted on the chart) have run under 9.78 seconds.
Bolt himself has managed that an astounding nine times in total – more than anyone else.
And of course, it’s not all just about the 100m. Bolt excels in the 200m and is the only man to hold world records in both distances since the IAAF began utilising automatic timekeeping in 1977.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Bolt broke US sprinter Michael Johnson’s 12-year-old 200m record of 19.32 seconds with a run of 19.30, before lowering it to 19.19 a year later in Berlin.
He is incredibly consistent. London 2017 aside, Bolt has won virtually every Olympic and World Championship race he has entered from 2008 onwards.
Rio 2016 saw him complete an unprecedented “triple triple” of consecutive Olympic gold medals in 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay – making him “immortal”, in his own words.
Bolt has since lost the 2008 relay medal after team-mate Nesta Carter failed a retrospective drugs test – affecting the whole relay team. Carter has lodged an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Bolt’s World Championships career is blotted only by a bronze medal in London in 2017, and a false start in the 100m in Daegu, South Korea, in 2011 which meant an automatic disqualification.
From 2008 onwards, he has only ever been beaten once in the 200m – by compatriot Blake at the Jamaican National Championships in 2012.
Blake also won the 100m at the same meet, one of only five times Bolt has failed to win at that distance in a major event.
Gatlin, Christian Coleman, Powell and Gay are the other athletes to have beaten Bolt in the 100m.
He’s even faster than you think. Bolt ran the fastest 10m of his 100m world record in a mere 0.81 seconds. That equates to 27.66 mph (44.51 km/h) – about the same speed as a galloping horse.
But the Jamaican has covered 100m quicker than 9.58 seconds when given a rolling start. He ran the second half of his 19.19 200m in in 9.26 seconds, and has clocked well under nine seconds several times in the 4x100m relay, with the fastest a blistering 8.65 in 2015.
That said, age and injury have taken their inevitable toll on Bolt, who is now almost 31. His season’s bests have slowed and he has raced less often. In 2016 he ran 9.81 for 100m and 19.78 for 200m – slow by his standards, but winning times nonetheless.
How does he do it? There is no simple answer but a study by Mackala Krzysztof and Antti Mero, published in the Journal of Human Kinetics, found his 6ft 5in (195cm) frame is one factor that gives him an advantage over other competitors.
Being tall is often regarded as a disadvantage for sprinters at the start of a race as it can limit the drive phase, when runners push forwards at an angle to gain acceleration.
But, the researchers say, by midway “Bolt’s body height resulting in long strides makes it possible for him to maintain high speed for a longer time and decelerate at a slower rate than shorter sprinters”.
And that stride length can average 2.47m. That’s a full 20cm longer than that of most other competitors – but he maintains a high stride frequency.
It’s a devastating combination for his rivals, as once Bolt is in full flight, he can gain ground with every step.
The Jamaican covered his world record 100m in less than 41 strides, whereas the other finalists averaged almost 45, Krzysztof and Mero found.
So what about that slow start for tall sprinters? Bolt overcomes it – usually.
True, he is slower out of the blocks than other competitors: if you look at all his reaction times out of the blocks across his Olympic and World Championship 100m races (except for his false start at Daegu 2011), pre-London he averaged 0.158 seconds while the other finalists averaged 0.149 seconds.
But, according to Michael Johnson, in his best races Bolt manages to achieve a similar drive phase as less tall runners. “You will see that in the first 30m or so he’s right there with the shorter sprinters, which is rare,” Johnson told the Olympic Channel.
In his world record race, Bolt was the quickest throughout. He was already ahead by 20m and fastest over every subsequent 20m section.
At London 2017, though, his reaction time of 0.183 was slow for him – and 0.031 slower than anyone else in the race.
With Bolt, there is always more besides the running. From his ‘Lightning Bolt’ pose, to goofing around on the track, to his claim he ate “about 1,000” chicken nuggets at the Beijing Olympics, Bolt’s playful personality has brought superstar status.
Occasional criticism for “showboating” before crossing the line has done little to dent his reputation with fans.
On the eve of his retirement, he is one of the world’s most popular track athletes on social media with a following of almost 19 million on Facebook, 7.1 million on Instagram and 4.75 million on Twitter.
With the fame comes the sponsorship. Contracts with Puma, Mumm champagne, Advil and others brought his annual earnings to $34.2m (£26.2) in 2016-17, according to Forbes magazine, which put him at 88 in its celebrity 100 list.
Bolt donates to charity through his foundation, including many years’ support for his old high school in Trelawny Parish, Jamaica.
But will he now step off the world stage into the shadows? The man himself says he wants to “relax a little bit, enjoy myself as much as possible”.
And, after that, perhaps a continuing role in global athletics.
But there is no doubt that the sport will miss him. IAAF chairman Lord Coe told the BBC recently: “What we will miss is the personality. We do want athletes with personality.”
There’s no chart that can capture that.
Design by Gerry Fletcher, development by Alvin Ourrad and Alison Benjamin. Additional statistics provided by Mark Butler.