Usain Bolt, in a Narrow Defeat, Leaves Behind a Yawning Chasm

“I’m just sorry I couldn’t end it on a winning note,” said Bolt, who will turn 31 this month.


It seemed hardly fitting, but then neither life nor track meets follow a script. Bolt’s season turned out to be one too far, after his triple-gold-medal performance at last year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

In 2017, and above all on Saturday night, he simply did not deliver the required valedictory speed. But he insisted the defeat had not altered his retirement plans.

“It doesn’t change anything for me,” Bolt said. “I think I lost the race to a great competitor.”

Referring to Coleman, he said: “I came in third to a young kid that is coming up. He has a great talent and great future ahead of him. So no regrets. I came out and did my best. I was always going to end no matter what happened — win, lose or draw. I was always going to walk away. I’ve done all I can do for the sport and for myself. It’s time to go.”

Photo

Justin Gatlin after winning the 100 meters at the world championships. He won his first world title in 2005 in Helsinki, Finland.

Credit
Tim Ireland/Associated Press

Coleman, who won N.C.A.A. championships in the 100 and 200 this year for the University of Tennessee before turning professional, managed a first early in the day. He defeated Bolt in a close semifinal heat, ending Bolt’s 28-race winning streak in the 100 meters.

But Bolt played it cool, looking theatrically at Coleman before they crossed the finish line, as if to say he would still have more — much more — to give when it mattered most.

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Coleman returned Bolt’s glance and went on to beat him out of the blocks again in the final. Coleman had company: Bolt’s reaction time was the second slowest of the eight finalists. Though he has routinely recovered from such deficits by straightening up his long body and achieving full flight, there would be no compensating this time.

He has often made victory look so easy, even preordained, crossing finish lines at less than full speed with his arms spread wide and a grin on his face.

But there was no margin for grandstanding in this final. As Bolt stretched for the finish line, he was grimacing, his mouth and eyes wide with effort. And as he started to decelerate, his face was full of concern as he looked at the scoreboard for the results.

“After the semifinal with Coleman, I knew if I don’t get my start, I’m going to be in trouble,” Bolt said. “And when I left the blocks, I was like, ‘Awww.’”

It was the first bronze medal for Bolt at a world championships, and it left the crowd buzzing with surprise. People had come to see Bolt off in style, roaring for him as he arrived on the track. Gatlin drew boos as he walked through the tunnel, and again as he was introduced at the starting line.

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But this turned out to be Gatlin’s moment, too. His second doping suspension, a four-year ban, began in 2006, when he was the world’s leading sprinter. He has been running in Bolt’s long shadow since his return, and their races have often been cast as morality plays, particularly their duel in the 100 at the 2015 world championships in Beijing, which Bolt won by just one-hundredth of a second and was hailed in some quarters as a savior for track and field.

There has been occasional tension between them, but on Saturday, both resisted the suggestion that the victory by Gatlin, who also served a one-year ban starting in 2001, had been a major blow to their sport. Bolt embraced him and congratulated him warmly on the track, and he later defended Gatlin’s right to compete after “paying his dues.”

Gatlin, the oldest man ever to win a running event other than the marathon at the world championships, said he had tried to block out the boos.

“Throughout all my rounds, I kind of just zoned in on my lane,” he said. “It’s kind of sad my boos were a little louder than other people’s cheers, but I wanted to keep it classy.

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