Usain Bolt's talent for speed becomes more apparent now it is denied to us

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<span>Photograph: John Giles/PA</span>
Photograph: John Giles/PA

Something you may not know about me: there is almost no set of circumstances – personal, professional, medical – in which I will not drop everything to watch Usain Bolt. Naturally, my personalised YouTube algorithm has already known this for some time, and will now instantly recommend me a selection of his greatest hits whenever I log in. “Usain Bolt | IAAF Daegu 2011 (200m s/f)”: yes please! “Bolt beats Gatlin | 2015 World Championships [HD]”: click! “Men’s 200m final | London 2017”: er, I think you’ll find Bolt didn’t run the 200 metres in London that year. Nice try, algorithm. Now get this grubby irrelevance out of my sight.

Perhaps you have your own favourite Bolt race. Perhaps it’s the first time he truly astonished us: the 100m at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, where he smashed the world record despite basically doing jazz hands from about 70 metres, like a Victorian street magician. Perhaps it’s the 9.58sec in Berlin the following summer, a truly ridiculous effort, one best remembered for the collective and involuntary noise the crowd makes when it sees the clock: a sort of aaaawwweuuurrrrgh. This was sport as testimony: after all, you didn’t simply watch Bolt breaking a world record. You witnessed it. You shared it. You shook people by the shoulders and asked – a little superfluously – did you see that?

Related: My favourite game: Usain Bolt wins Olympic 200m gold at Beijing 2008 | Andy Bull

Alternatively, perhaps you gorged yourself to nausea on sporting nostalgia during lockdown, in which case the reason for this space being occupied by Bolt this week may not be immediately clear. He has, after all, been retired almost three years: time largely spent pursuing a football career, and more recently becoming the father to a baby girl called – genuinely – Olympia Lightning. But as we make our disorienting way through what should have been an Olympic summer, we are fleetingly reminded of the vast Bolt-shaped hole in the sporting landscape: not just the man himself, but the emotions he inspired.

First, there’s the speed. Or at least, the illusion of speed. For if you think about it, 27.8mph isn’t actually that fast: at least not until you conceptualise it, choreograph it, set it in context. This is why I always preferred watching Bolt over 200m: the way the straightening curve seemed to catapult him down the home straight like a slingshot, the way he would often cross the line with his rivals comically, crushingly out of the frame. But that was the greatness of Bolt: to temporarily render every single other human on earth irrelevant.

Then there was the illusion of effortlessness. This is an easier one to understand: right from the start of Bolt’s career we were sold a tale of the laid-back super-freak partying his way to the start line fuelled by chicken nuggets and a winsome smile. And yet, if Bolt spent the first half of his career creating this character, he spent the second demolishing it.

Pursued by injuries on one hand and the irrepressible Gatlin on the other, Bolt’s later triumphs were a testament not just to his raw speed but to his resolve: the mental fortitude to keep returning to a mountain he had climbed many times over. For all the exhaustive analysis of Bolt as a physical phenomenon – the high knees, the unorthodox stride, the asymmetrical weight distribution – perhaps we underrate him as a force of pure, competitive will.

Usain Bolt embraces Justin Gatlin after the men&#x002019;s 100m final at the 2017 world championships
Usain Bolt embraces Justin Gatlin after the men’s 100m final at the 2017 world championships. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Finally the illusion of virtue, and in particular the slightly melodramatic “good v evil” narrative that attached itself to his late-career duel with Gatlin. There is, of course, nothing intrinsically moral about running fast for a prescribed distance. And yet. Given the past and present of athletics, a sport steeped in vice, apathy and misrule, in world champions being suspended for missing dope tests and 200m races accidentally being run over 185 metres, perhaps it’s little surprise that even a retired Bolt can feel like the one last pure good thing, the final bulwark against total, entropic abyss.

Naturally, it’s a good deal more complicated than that. For one thing, there are plenty of people out there who will tell you with a nudge and a wink that if something looks too good to be true, eh, you know what I mean, eh? Who will show you an old, viral list of the then best 100m times in history with all the dopers scrawled out, leaving Bolt out on his own, immaculate, adrift in a sea of red ink. Often this embittered nihilism will dress itself up as some great act of selfless nobility, as if the height of moral courage is in tweeting a picture of a great athlete with the syringe emoji attached to it.

Related: Usain Bolt leaves athletics behind with final warning to drug cheats

And despite never having failed a test, despite not offering a shred of evidence to the contrary other than being phenomenally good, Bolt’s dominance of a historically dirty sport will continue to curse him. Set a world record and everyone hoists you on to a pedestal. Three decades later, when that record is still standing, you may find time has curiously rotted rather than ripened your achievement. What do you do with that doubt? How do you process incredulity in a sport that brutally punishes its believers?

Maybe the most courageous thing to do is to keep believing. To risk looking like a sap in 20 years’ time. To embrace the possibility of your own ridicule and plant your flag in the sand nonetheless. To say yes, this sport is diseased to its bones, but I still believe in the power of shock and miracles. I still believe in athletics. I still believe in Usain Bolt.

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