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Forget Michael Phelps ... Usain Bolt wants to be like Ali and Pele

·MLB columnist
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  • Tokyo Games
    Tokyo Games
  • Usain Bolt
    Usain Bolt
    Jamaican sprinter
  • Michael Phelps
    Michael Phelps
    American swimmer

Medal count | Olympic schedule | Olympic news

RIO DE JANEIRO – All this time arguing Usain Bolt vs. Michael Phelps, all the breath wasted on who’s the greatest Olympian of all time, and we’ve been missing the crux of it. Usain Bolt does not want to be compared to Michael Phelps. Don’t twist it. He respects Phelps, respects his medals, his hard work, his dedication to his craft – everything they share. But Michael Phelps is an Olympian. Usain Bolt wants to be a god.

“I am trying to be one of the greatest – be among Ali and Pele,” Bolt said Thursday night, fresh off his latest triumph in the 200-meter dash. He won it again, his second gold of the Rio Games, his eighth in his last eight Olympic races, perfection within reach Friday with the 4×100-meter relay his last race before he says he’s done with the Olympics. And though a relay win only would embolden his case to be among the transcendent, he doesn’t need it. His passport is practically stamped already.

[Related: Usain Bolt does it again, winning 200-meter Olympic gold

In Bangladesh and China, England and Australia, South Africa and the United States, everywhere in the world, from the biggest nations to the smallest kingdoms, the name Usain Bolt means something. It’s greatness. It’s winning. He is the brand Donald Trump wants to be. He is the champion who’s beloved, who leaves nothing but awe in his wake. Muhammad Ali embodied this. Pele inspires the same. Usain Bolt isn’t yet 30, and he owns it.

Much as we’re prisoners of the moment, convinced the Rio Games will be remembered for the incredible ability of a brain cell-deficient swimmer to cause an international incident, history may instead look upon this as the time Bolt and Phelps left behind the charade to which they lent their talents. Other talents will arrive, and their stories will be told, and their feats will be celebrated, but they won’t be Phelps, won’t be Bolt, won’t be close. And as much as that, too, sounds like prisoner-of-the-moment prattle, the raw number of Phelps’ medals and pure reimagining of the sprinting record book by Bolt could stand for decades.

“There’s nothing else I can do, really,” Bolt said. “For me, I’ve proven to the world that I’m the greatest, and that’s what I came here for. That’s what I’m doing. This is why I said this is my last Olympics. I can’t prove anything else.”

What he did Thursday wasn’t, by Bolt’s standards, all that spectacular, which shows the depth of his sporting divinity, seeing as he won an Olympic sprint running away. His time of 19.78 seconds came on a track dusted by rain and on legs sore from the grind of an Olympics in which he had won the 100-meter dash, too. Knowing this, Canadian Andre De Grasse used the semifinals to push Bolt down the straightaway. Bolt typically cruises the final 100 meters of a qualifying race; DeGrasse preyed on this. Gods don’t lose races to men, even in the semifinals.

[Related: Usain Bolt wanted to take 200-meter easy, Andre De Grasse had other ideas]

“You’re gonna learn from that,” Bolt told him after the semis, and there was De Grasse a day later, behind Bolt, summoning everything he could to catch him, unable to find that extra energy, settling for a silver medal when he was certain his tactic the day before would allow him a crack at gold.

“I guess I did pay for it,” De Grasse lamented.

They come at the king, and they miss. All of them. They’ve missed for 12 years now. A sport that operates in four-year cycles does not understand a dozen-year reign. It’s as impossible as a 6-foot-5 kid from Jamaica turning into the fastest man the world ever has seen. One man crossed the finish line first in back-to-back 100-meter dashes at the Olympics before Bolt. He has won three in a row. No man won consecutive 200-meter dashes at the Olympics before Bolt. He has won three in a row.

“I tell every youngster, ‘You’re not going to beat me,’ ” Bolt said. “I don’t allow young kids to beat me. I don’t give them that.”

If Bolt is most like anyone, it’s Ali. Bolt doesn’t touch politics, not yet at least, and beyond his skill and his faculty with words, Ali’s worldview – his willingness to butt heads with authority figures and embrace unpopular positions – defined his legacy. The interconnectedness of the world makes universal sports figures more powerful than ever. Should Bolt truly desire to be like Ali – the man Ali was – he can. Usain Bolt can be whatever he desires.

Which is why only one answer he gave Thursday caused chuckles. He’s 29 years old, committed to running only the 100 next year, insistent that he won’t be at the Tokyo Games in four years as an athlete. So what, he was asked, does retirement look like?

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” Bolt said. “What am I gonna do? I have no idea. You just stressed me out.”

[Related: Usain Bolt will cash a massive paycheck in 2016]

Right now, Bolt defines himself as a runner who aspires to more. When he’s not a runner anymore, his job will be professional god – someone whose deed is to compel good and bring happiness through presence alone. This is what made Ali, what makes Pele. It’s what Michael Phelps, for all of his glorious sporting achievements, doesn’t have, not yet at least. Maybe in retirement he’ll find he seeks more like Bolt, though never has he been the type to call himself a legend and declare himself immortal.

Bolt has done both. He somehow manages to balance charm with staggering egomania. It’s really a gift. Following his win in the 200, he said he took pride in being a nine-time gold medalist … before quickly correcting himself and saying he meant eight-time. The ninth can come Friday night, when he anchors the 4×100. In the 100 and 200, Bolt depended on only himself. The relay takes three others to match his level of performance. It’s not easy, even when Bolt isn’t necessarily the Bolt we’ve come to know.

“He was there for the taking,” said Stuart McMillan, De Grasse’s coach. “Usain Bolt in his prime is untouchable. But Usain Bolt in 2016 is touchable.”

Maybe he is, but neither De Grasse nor bronze medalist Christophe Lemaitre nor anyone else managed to cop a feel of any manner or variety. Usain Bolt can speak of Ali and Pele because even now, when age impedes his recovery between races, when the precipice of perfection is within reach, when he sees his own sporting mortality and wants to transmogrify into something bigger, he knows it’s not hyperbole. He no longer need desire to be a god. He already is.

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