THE relentless rolling on of time changes everything and nothing.
What was true yesterday or even decades ago generally remains so. However, one of the things that constantly evolves are the benchmarks defining greatness in sport. What was a great performance in Rome in 1960 is barely a make-up-the-numbers also-ran today; a gold medal performance in Rio de Janeiro may not suffice in Tokyo. Sports’ roll of honour is a constant work in progress. Only the most successful, the celestial and the most beautiful performers are guaranteed a permanent place on it.
One athlete guaranteed a lasting place in that pantheon ran his last race on Saturday night. Usain Bolt, Jamaica’s charismatic force of nature, has dominated his sport like no other. His record seems an Everest that may never be conquered again. Even if that assertion is framed by the limits of our imagination it is hard to conceive that Bolt’s achievements will ever be equalled. That is, however, what those lucky enough to have seen Emil Zátopek, Fanny Blankers-Koen, or Mark Spitz in their pomp thought too. When and how Bolt’s record will fall seems the only real question.
His retirement is an opportunity to update the list of truly great performers, especially as some of those on it — Pele, Muhammed Ali and Lester Piggott say — move from the category of contemporary history to the purely historical. The list of those whose achievements were realised in this century and who might be included is short and, in terms of gender, unsatisfactorily imbalanced. Only one woman seems an automatic choice. Serena Williams has dominated her peers since she was first named World Number One 15 years ago and at 35 continues to do so. Tennis offers a second certainty — Roger Federer. He is a combination of grace, skill, and composure unlikely to be matched in our lifetime ... but the same was said of Andre Agassi and Björn Borg.
Soccer offers two gold-plated — in more ways than one — candidates, Messi and Ronaldo. It is as much a commentary on society as it is on soccer that Neymar, who has set a new transfer record at €220m last week, has yet to secure a place. Rugby offers a single contender — the sublime Dan Carter.
In golf, the choice is equally clear-cut. Despite his painful implosion, who can forget the majesty of the young Tiger Woods? His performances before the anchors offering him emotional and professional stability slipped were often as beautiful as anything offered by a Nureyev or a Baryshnikov.
This small island can offer one contender — one bristling with ferocious ambition and talent. Champion jockey 21 times, every year he was a professional, AP McCoy’s record 4,358 winners puts him in a category all on his own.
It is always joyful to celebrate the best but the sad fact that the magnificent Bolt lost the last race of his career to a man twice banned because he is a drug cheat seems a perfect metaphor for our time. Professional sport has become so tawdry, so very suspect, that a figure like Bolt is priceless in ways far beyond performance. At a moment, when those who would destroy our world build their momentum with accusations of fake news, Bolt was a wonderful bulwark against fake sport.
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