Bolt hangs up spikes
By Robson Sharuko
HARARE – He has been compared to the greatest of all-time, former world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, and as Usain Bolt prepares to say goodbye to the big stage by running his final race in London, the search for athletics’ next global superstar is already underway.
The Jamaican superman is set to wave goodbye to a sport he has dominated, and become its international face, at the World Championships that get underway in London this weekend.
Crucially, Bolt, a holder of eight Olympic gold medals and three world records who has not lost a 100m race since 2013 in Rome, is leaving a sport.
Amid all the scandals that have hit athletics over the years, Bolt has provided the ray of light for the sport with his charisma and brilliance on the track.
And, ahead of his farewell show on the big stage, the International Association of Athletics Federations boss Sebastian Coe compared Bolt to the legendary Ali.
“He is the best sprinter of all time,” said Coe who won gold in the 1500m Olympics in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984.
“Usain Bolt is a genius. I can’t think, other than Muhammad Ali, of anybody that has had an impact inside or beyond their sport.
“You can have the Friday-night-in-the-pub conversations about who is best footballer or tennis player, but there is no argument about this guy in sprinting.
“What we will miss is the personality. We do want athletes with personality. It’s nice to have someone who has a view and fills the room and fills a stadium. You are not going to replace Muhammad Ali, but great athletes come along.”
In June, Bolt raced for the last time, competitively, in his home country Jamaica and an estimated 35,000 people turned up at the Kingston National Stadium and turned it into a theatre of celebrations with their wild dances and horn-blowing as they said goodbye to the greatest ever sportsman the Caribbean island nation has ever known.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been that nervous running a 100m. Just the atmosphere and the people, the support they came out and gave me, it was really nerve-racking,’’ Bolt told journalists after winning his race and being mobbed by delirious fans.
“I never expected this. It’s big to see everybody that turned out. It was my honour to put the sport of track and field at the top.”
But, now, as Bolt prepares to say goodbye, who will step into the big shoes that the Jamaican superstar is set to leave behind?
It’s very clear, as Cole rightly said, there will never be anyone like Bolt, just as there has never been anyone like Ali, but the sport must go on and a new face of world athletics has to be found even if he or she might not scale the heights touched by the Jamaican superstar.
There are some who believe Wayde van Niekerk, a rising young South African superstar with charming facial features and a talent to match, could become the new face of athletics.
The 24-year-old Liverpool fan powered to prominence at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, last year when he smashed a 17-year-old 400 metre world record on his way to a gold medal that was celebrated around the world.
Van Niekerk, who is coached by a 74-year-old coach, eclipsed American superstar Michael Johnson’s world record, set in Seville, Spain in 1999, by running the 400 metres in 43.03s, 0.15s quicker than the legend.
Johnson, who watched the race while commentating for the BBC Sport, described it as a massacre.
“It was a massacre,” said Johnson, a two-time 400m Olympic champion.
“Van Niekerk is so young, what else can he do? Can he go under 43 seconds? It is something I thought I could do, but never did.
“Oh my God! From lane eight, a world record. He took it out so quick. I have never seen anything from 200 to 400 like that.
“Usain Bolt will be retiring soon, this could be the next star.”
That, coming from a legend like Johnson, sent Twitter into explosion around the world and, to his credit, Bolt, even stopped his victory celebrations to congratulate the South African sprinter.
Van Niekerk has already won gold at the Olympics and the World Championships and is set to run the 200m and 400m in London.
If the South African sprinter triumphs, he would have made a big statement in his quest for the superstardom that his fans believe could lead him to become the next face of world athletics in the post Usain Bolt era.
While Van Niekerk is the talk of the town, as the greatest of all-time brings the curtain down on what has been a great adventure on the track, his South African counterpart Caster Semenya will also grab a lot of attention in London.
“She is the athlete to beat over two laps,’’ the IAAF said on their website. ‘’Indeed, prior to the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Monaco in July, a Semenya victory in London, with Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba, who has also enjoyed a consistently excellent couple of years in second, was almost a foregone conclusion.
“The South African, who will be aiming for her third world title following victories in 2009 and 2011, remains the favourite, but the margin of victory in Monaco was much reduced compared to previous occasions.
“Niyonsaba, who has broken two minutes in every race over the past two seasons and took the silver medal in Rio in 2016, will surely be Semenya’s closest challenger in the London Stadium, but, in Wilson, they now have another athlete who could rival them.
“The 23-year-old from New Jersey was a precocious junior, placing fifth at the 2013 World Championships, and will be seeking another medal to add to the silver she earned at last year’s World Indoor Championships