LONDON (AP) — Is it too soon to ask? Usain Bolt, please come back.
The superstar who made athletics fun — and watchable — for the past decade returns to the track for the final time Saturday to run on Jamaica’s 4x100-meter relay team. It will give fans a well-deserved break after five days at world championships that they can only hope isn’t a look into the sport’s long-term future.
The biggest headliner since Bolt left the track last Saturday with an unfathomable bronze medal in the 100 meters: Stomach flu.
In between the drama involving norovirus and Botswana’s Isaac Makwala have been a series of strange races, favorites who didn’t come through and unknowns who did.
Lacking in all that has been someone, anyone, who could at least pretend to enjoy the spotlight that Bolt occupied all alone for nearly a decade.
“It’s one thing to be named among the greats in track and field,” said Wayde van Niekerk, the South African who holds the world record in the 400 meters. “It’s a different thing putting out performances to lay out concrete ground for that recognition.”
Van Niekerk got one performance right. He won the 400 in a breeze after his main contender, Makwala, was barred from the stadium for having a stomach bug he claimed he did not have. But then, the South African came up short in the 200 final. He could’ve produced the first 200-400 sweep at the worlds since Michael Johnson did it 22 years ago. Instead, Ramil Guliyev of Turkey captured the title and Van Niekerk insisted, “I will never try and fill Usain’s shoes, or Michael’s.”
Certainly not Andre De Grasse, at least not at this meet. The Canadian basketball player-turned-sprinter started making a name for himself at last year’s Olympics when he had the temerity to challenge Bolt during the 200-meter semifinals, and Bolt wagged his finger at him .
But De Grasse never made it to the starting line in London, pulling out a few days before the meet with a hamstring injury.
Some of the big names who did race have underwhelmed — or found themselves in awkward circumstances.
—Justin Gatlin, who won the 100 meters where Bolt finished third, was greeted with boos every time he stepped on the track — residue from two doping positives that are far in his past. “I know you have to have the black hat and the white hat, but guys, come on,” said the 35-year-old American, who will be long gone when and if the “next Bolt” ever does show up.
—Allyson Felix left frustrated again, finishing in third place after being unable to find the closing kick in a 400-meter final. The woman who beat Felix in a firecracker of a race at last year’s Olympics, Shaunae Miller-Uibo, was far in the lead this time but inexplicably lost it when she looked at the big screen and lost her balance.
—Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson , the favorite in the women’s 100, was a non-factor, finishing fifth. The winner, Tori Bowie, crashed hard into the track at the finish line and was so dinged up, she had to pull out of the 200, where she would have been a contender.
—Even one of the meet’s more entertaining competitions, the men’s triple jump, ended with a twinge of disappointment. Christian Taylor beat his buddy, American teammate Will Claye, but failed in the quest he really wanted — breaking the world record. “Honestly, I have just been chasing this number,” Taylor said of the 18.29-meter mark that he fell well short of on Thursday.
Can Bolt — the man who owns the world record at 100, 200 and the 4x100 relay, along with eight Olympic and 11 world championship gold medals — bring a little joy back to the track as the meet reaches its last weekend?
Odds are, yes. He is, after all, an entertainer at heart.
In keeping with this week’s theme, though, the expected gold-medal showdown between Jamaica and the United States is fraught with uncomfortable realities: Jamaica’s sprinters are clearly not what they once were, and after his third-place finish, there’s now some question as to whether Bolt can make up for the flaws. Meanwhile, the U.S. team has failed to get the baton around the track as often as not at the biggest meets over the past two decades and needs to overcome that Achilles heel to have any chance of breaking through.
Mostly, there’s the finality of the moment. This really is the finish line. Bolt insists he kept running this season for the fans, and no result can change either his mind, or what he’s accomplished in his career.
“It’s time for me to pack it up,” he said.
And after Saturday, the Star Search is officially on. The Tokyo Olympics are three years away.
More AP track coverage: https://www.apnews.com/tag/Worlds