When the two men faced each other in the 200-metre final, they did so as rivals competing for gold. But when Bolt crossed the finish line first, in a time of 19.78, just ahead of De Grasse, who took the silver in 20.02, and France’s Christophe Lemaitre, who won bronze in 20.12, Bolt was essentially passing the torch.
The world record holder, who has hinted this may be his last Olympics, wants to leave the sport as dominant as ever, but he also seems intent on anointing De Grasse as his heir apparent. Upon winning the 200 metres, Bolt turned to De Grasse and patted him on the back. Bolt, who did a salsa dance for the audience when introduced before the race, then turned to the crowd and raised his arms in victory, as De Grasse leaned over to catch his breath.
It was part of an emerging pattern: All week in Rio, Bolt has promoted De Grasse as the future of sprinting, making a show of how much he respects him on the track.
When Bolt, who turns 30 next week, won the 100 metres on Sunday, with De Grasse taking bronze behind American Justin Gatlin, who claimed silver, Bolt compared the 21-year-old Canadian’s running style to his own. More than just being generous, it was the kind of comparison Bolt rarely makes with other competitors.
And when the Jamaican beat De Grasse in the 200-metre semi-final on Wednesday – grinning and waving his finger at De Grasse as he crossed the line, as if to say: not yet, but soon – it was as close to a ceremonial hand-over as the sport has seen. It was also a jab at De Grasse for running so hard in the semi-final.
De Grasse and his coach devised a plan to tire out Bolt for the final by going hard in Wednesday’s race.
“[Bolt] was just saying it was just unnecessary. He told me that you’re going to learn from that, you’re young. And I guess I did pay for that today,” De Grasse said. “I felt like I had a great shot. I’m not sure if I just used up a little bit too much energy yesterday and didn’t have anything left today.”
De Grasse becomes the first Canadian to win a medal in the 200-metre event since Percy Williams won gold in 1928 in Amsterdam. Stuart McMillan, De Grasse’s coach, said the result was “initially disappointing,” because they thought they had a chance to beat Bolt.
“Andre is a really cool customer. He definitely wasn’t intimidated. We had a strategy to try and tire out Usain [Wednesday night in the semi-finals.] I think we did that. Clearly Usain was very tired tonight. That’s why we’re a little bit frustrated. Because he was there for the taking, and we just couldn’t get it done.”
Though still the Olympic champion, Bolt has slowed since he set the 200-metre world record of 19.19 seconds in 2009.
“Usain Bolt in his prime is untouchable,” McMillan said. “But Usain Bolt in 2016 is touchable. And I think there was an opportunity here in both the 100 and the 200 for Usain to lose. And whether it’s a part of the Usain Bolt mystique, or everyone else being slightly intimidated, I’m not sure, but there was an opportunity here that was lost.”
As recently as two years ago, De Grasse was a relative unknown outside the sport. But the past week has marked one of the most remarkable ascents sprinting has seen.
He watched the 2012 London Olympics on television at home, having just gotten into competitive sprinting after being discovered at a high school track meet, running in basketball shorts and wearing borrowed spikes.
At last year’s Pan Am Games in Toronto, De Grasse ran the 200 metres in a Canadian record 19.88 seconds. At Wednesday’s semi-final, he smashed that mark by an impressive margin, crossing the line in 19.80, behind Bolt’s 19.78. Now, De Grasse has become the first Canadian to win two individual track medals in the same Olympics since 1932.
De Grasse was confident heading into the 200-metre final Thursday night, figuring the event gave him his best shot at beating Bolt. The Canadian likes to gain speed as he progresses down the track, using the extra runway as an advantage.
Bolt, running in lane four, was in command from the beginning, while De Grasse, in lane six, found himself battling with four other sprinters, including Lemaitre, after the first 100 metres. In the final 100 metres, De Grasse pulled away, showing why he is one of the best sprinters on the planet right now.
Bolt is known to the world: He’s the best sprinter there ever was. His third consecutive sweep of the 100- and 200-metre sprints is unmatched. A gold Friday in the 4×100 relay would give him the hat trick in that event as well.
But De Grasse is still a work in progress, meaning he has the potential to run faster still. “There’s a lot of things I’ve still got to learn,” he said this week.
He was referencing the mistakes he made in the 100 metres, coming too fast out of the blocks as he tried to push Bolt early in the race, which cost him precious time toward the end. It prevented him from catching Bolt and Gatlin.
But De Grasse’s two medals in Rio, and a shot at a third in Friday’s relay final, confirm what Bolt has been telling everybody: Four years from now at the Tokyo Summer Games, it looks like De Grasse will be the man to beat.
“De Grasse is showing he’s ready,” Bolt said this week. “We know that the future of the sport is in good hands.”
RIO DE JANEIRO The Globe and Mail
Last updated: Friday, Aug. 19, 2016 9:09AM EDT