Usain Bolt is down to his last, blazing curtain call

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Muhammad Ali stood alone on many fronts, but Joe Frazier, George Foreman and a few others still stood toe-to-toe with him in the ring. Jack Nicklaus contended with Arnold Palmer on the front end of his career and Tom Watson on the back end.

Usain Bolt? Nobody has been a match for him, on or off the track.

The man who reshaped the record book and saved his sport is saying goodbye. His sprints through the 100m and Jamaica’s 4x100m relay at the world championships, which begin Friday, are expected to produce golds yet again, and leave track with this difficult question: Who can possibly take his place?

“You would have to have someone who’s dominating, and no one’s doing that,” said Michael Johnson, the former world-record holder at 200m and 400m and perhaps the sport’s brightest star in the 1990s. “You’d have to have someone who has that something special like he has, in terms of personality and presence. You’re not going to have that.”

Though he will not retire undefeated, Bolt stands in the rarest of company: an athlete who was never beaten when the stakes were greatest. And with a showman’s flair as transcendent as his raw speed — Chicken McNuggets for dinner, his fabled “To di World” pose for dessert and dancing away at nightclubs till dawn — he hoisted his entire, troubled sport upon his shoulders and made it watchable and relevant.

Since his era of dominance began in 2008, Bolt went undefeated at the Olympics — 9 for 9 — in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m. (One of those medals was stripped because of doping by a teammate on the 2008 relay team.)

He has set, and re-set, the world records in all three events. His marks of 19.30, then 19.19, at 200m, were once thought virtually impossible. He set a goal of breaking 19 seconds in Rio last summer, and when he came up short, it became clear the barrier will be safe for years.

At the world championships, Bolt’s only “loss” came in 2011, when he was disqualified for a false start in the 100m. Jamaican teammate Yohan Blake won the title that year, as well as the Jamaican national championships at 100m 200m leading to the London Olympics. Heading back to London five years later, Blake is an afterthought.

And Bolt’s mastery of this sport remains unchallenged.

“I’ll be sad to see someone like him go,” said America’s Justin Gatlin, Bolt’s longest and sturdiest challenger, who has been disingenuously portrayed as the brooding bad boy set against Bolt’s carefree party guy. “He’s such a big figure in our sport. Not only is he a big figure, but the kind of guy who always will be a competitor when he steps onto the line.”

Though it’s tricky to compare dominance in track to that in any other sport, there’s an element of Nicklaus in Bolt’s dominance. Impressive as his 18 major championships are, Nicklaus’ 19 second-place finishes and 73 top-10s spoke to his ability to get into the mix in most of the majors over the quarter-century while he was collecting titles. Nicklaus had to fend off Palmer, Watson, Johnny Miller and a dozen other legitimate contenders at every event. Bolt hasn’t faced anything like that.

Yet they shared this important similarity: Often, the contests were over before they even began. Or, as Tom Weiskopf once said: “Jack knew he was going to beat you. You knew Jack was going to beat you. And Jack knew that you knew that he was going to beat you.”

At the worlds two years ago, Gatlin had Bolt beaten in the 100m but leaned in at the finish line a microsecond too early. Bolt passed him and won by .01. The American all but admitted he psyched himself out.

Speaking to the pressure of racing someone such as Bolt, the Scottish sports historian and former Olympic coach Tom McNab compared sprinting to running in a tunnel.

“And once you become aware of what’s happening outside your tunnel, you’re in trouble,” he said.

In boxing, Ali wasn’t necessarily unbeatable, but he was incomparable as both a sharp-witted showman and an athlete with a social conscience, using his platform to preach tolerance and oppose war.

Bolt hasn’t sought that sort of impact, at least not yet, but it’s hard to overstate the mark he made on his troubled sport and, thus, the Olympics, which have long featured athletics as the must-see event of the final two weeks.

Over years and decades, the showcase sport of the Olympics has devolved into a sordid litany of doping scandals. The latest concerns widespread corruption and cheating in Russia, and heading into Rio, it undermined not only the sport and its managers, but the Olympics and their leaders’ willingness to deal with it.

But when Bolt sauntered onto the track, flashed a peace sign and blew a kiss to the crowd, all was forgotten. Not just for the 9, or 19, seconds while he was running, but for the entire evening and beyond. He made track, and thus, the Olympics, eminently watchable.

He’ll do it one more time on a smaller stage – track’s world championships – but a stage with plenty of symbolic meaning.

When he headed to London for the Olympics in 2012, Bolt held all the records, but was portrayed as vulnerable, following the false start, a long list of nagging injuries and his losses to Blake.

By the time he left, he had pretty much anointed himself as the greatest. Four years later, he said that was precisely his goal: “To be among Ali and Pele,” he said.

He’s on that list, but when the lights go out after the relays Aug. 11 – 10 days before his 31st birthday – it will be time to say goodbye.

“Once he’s gone,” McNab says, “there’s no major personality that would make any significant impact at the world level.”

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MORE: Bolt barely wins last race before worlds

Jenny Simpson, most decorated U.S. miler, shifts focus with new Puma sponsorship

Jenny Simpson
Puma
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Jenny Simpson, the most decorated U.S. female miler in history, plans to return to racing on Sunday with a new shoe sponsor, Puma.

Simpson, whose last race was the Cherry Blossom 10-mile road race in Washington, D.C., in September 2021, according to World Athletics, will run what she called “a little rust-buster” at the Army Ten-Miler in Washington, D.C.

“My intention is to turn my focus to the roads,” Simpson, 36, wrote in an email. “I have some great PUMA spikes that I love so the track isn’t off the table. But my emphasis will be road racing.”

Last year’s Cherry Blossom was her first race longer than 5,000 meters, according to World Athletics. What are the chances she eventually moves up to the marathon distance?

“This new chapter is an exploration,” she answered. “I’m going to let the races, training, and coaching guide the next steps as they come. I know I can physically do it, it’s a matter of whether I can be great at it and my team and I will only go there if we think we can be competitive. So, let’s say for chances… 51% :)”

Simpson made her first Olympic team in 2008 in the 3000m steeplechase, then in 2012 and 2016 in the 1500m, earning a bronze medal in Rio. She is the lone U.S. woman to win a world 1500m title (2011) or an Olympic 1500m medal.

From 2007 through 2019, Simpson finished in the top three in one of the 1500m, 5000m or 3000m steeplechase at all 13 annual USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships. Last year, she was 10th in the Olympic Trials 1500m in a bid to become the oldest U.S. Olympic 1500m runner in history, according to Olympedia.org.

Simpson focused much of her time this year helping her Colorado community heal and rebuild from a late December fire. She did not enter the USATF Outdoors for the first time since 2006.

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Mikaela Shiffrin, checklist complete, carries lessons into new World Cup season

Mikaela Shiffrin
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Mikaela Shiffrin said she hit every possible statistical goal in the first 11 years of her Alpine skiing career. Keep that in mind as the storyline the next few seasons may turn to the World Cup wins record.

Shiffrin, who begins her 12th World Cup season in Soelden, Austria, in two weeks, is up to 74 victories on the circuit. The 27-year-old ranks third all-time behind Lindsey Vonn, who owns the women’s record of 82 wins, and Swede Ingemar Stenmark, who has the overall record of 86.

Shiffrin did rounds of interviews Thursday at the media day for her ski sponsor, Atomic. In one sitdown streamed by Atomic, she was asked, “Are you aiming for the record? … There’s just 12 left. Normally, winning 12 races, that’s a lot, but you already won 74, so it doesn’t sound that much anymore.”

“Just 12,” Shiffrin joked. “If you look at it like that, but that’s maybe oversimplification.” (Note greats including Americans Picabo Street and Julia Mancuso didn’t win 12 World Cups over a career.)

Then Shiffrin asked if the interviewer did in fact say 74 — “Yeah, you have 74,” the interviewer confirmed to Shiffrin, who sat between fellow stars Sofia Goggia of Italy and Aleksander Aamodt Kilde of Norway.

“Even after 74 … one race feels like a lot,” Shiffrin continued. “Twelve [wins] still feels like a large mountain to climb, for sure, but it’s step by step or race by race. If I just focus on what’s coming in the next couple weeks and then keep going from there, then we’ll see.”

From 2017 to 2019, Shiffrin won 11, 12 and 17 times on the World Cup. Her last three seasons were abbreviated after her father’s death, the COVID-19 pandemic and back problems. She still won an average of five races each year.

In an earlier interview Thursday, Shiffrin expressed confidence about her preseason form. She followed February’s Beijing Olympics, where her best individual finish was ninth, by bagging her fourth World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in the sport, crowning the best all-around skier.

“Finishing off [at last March’s World Cup Finals] in Meribel, that final race of the season, I was thinking, I could use a moment to breathe,” she said. “There was also this part of me that’s like, I kind of didn’t want this to be the last race. I was a little bit antsy to actually get going on the next season already.”

Shiffrin took less of a break than a year ago, spending 10 days in Maui. She had “really productive” training camps in Colorado, Switzerland and Chile and arrived back in Europe on Wednesday for the run-up to the World Cup opener on Oct. 22.

As always, the priority is keeping her slalom and giant slalom technique top-notch. As long as that’s flowing, Shiffrin feels comfortable branching into the speed events, starting with super-Gs. She plans to race both the slalom and GS at February’s world championships, then possibly the super-G with the combined less of a priority. The downhill is “fairly doubtful,” but she has a few months to make a final decision.

Of course, Shiffrin raced everything at the Olympics in February. In interviews last winter, she couldn’t quite explain why the greatest technical skier in history did not finish any of her three technical runs at the Games.

Shiffrin gave a detailed, two-and-a-half-minute answer when asked Thursday if she went back during this offseason to analyze those races. Or if she is brushing them off as an anomaly.

“Statistically, it’s an anomaly, but there was a lot of culminating factors that could have been involved,” she said.

In basic terms, she got on her inside ski in the opening GS and fell within 13 seconds — “a technical flaw that had a much higher consequence than it’s ever had in any other race that I’ve ever done.” In slalom, she had too much intensity, or too much speed, in a section that required more precision and skidded out within six seconds — “I was not giving anything away, and then I gave everything away.”

“There was less margin for error in Beijing because of the snow conditions,” said Shiffrin, who like every other racer hadn’t previously raced on that slope of manufactured snow. “I don’t think I maybe considered that enough in the moment when I was skiing to kind of reel it in sometimes when it would have been necessary. But I also wasn’t skiing to reel it in or make it to the finish. I was skiing to like, blow the course apart. I was going for it.”

She hopes to take that mentality into this season. In the spring and summer, she devoted more time to developing equipment that works better on softer snow, which is becoming more commonplace at World Cup venues given warmer temperatures.

“If you have a checklist of goals you want to achieve before you retire, actually, my checklist is complete,” she said. “If I had one, it would be complete. Somehow, I feel like I still have something left to accomplish, or faster skiing to do, so that’s kind of why I’m here. Hopefully I can remember that when there’s points in the season that feel stressful or pressure. There’s nothing that has to be done.”

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