RIO de JANEIRO — When Usain Bolt crossed the finish line just two-hundredths of a second ahead of his rival and pal Andre De Grasse, they both had huge smiles on their faces. It was a sports photo for the ages.
And the image of those two men smiling and clowning a bit with each other just fit the narrative that has been building these Olympics. Bolt is the legend, the greatest sprinter who ever lived, and he’s surely coming to the end. De Grasse is the kid, just 21, bold, brash, impossibly fast, lots of fun. There’s been a big brother-little brother thing building between them, a king and his heir vibe, and, yes, in the lexicon of now, a bromance.
So when De Grasse sped up at the end of the 200-meter semifinal Wednesday and pushed a downshifting Bolt to the line — pushed Bolt to go a breathtaking 19.78 (fast enough to win a medal at every single Olympics, and fast enough for gold at most of them) — it really did look like a couple of pals having a good time. Both were smiling. De Grasse seemed to say something. Bolt wagged his finger as if to say, “no, no, no, not passing me yet young man.”
Super happy Bolt-De Grasse memes popped all over the Internet. People on Twitter asked for a Bolt-De Grasse buddy movie. Murtaugh and Riggs. Bill and Ted. Carter and Lee. Usain and Andre.
“De Grasse was supposed to slow down at the end,” Bolt said on NBC and on BBC, and he laughed heartily. It all seemed so happy.
But here in Brazil, it was just a bit different. I should say, it has become a joyous part of my life watching Brazilian Olympic coverage. For one thing, I think my Portuguese is getting better because I definitely feel like I’m beginning to understand the announcers. But two, there’s an energy that comes off the screen, a combination of genuine excitement for Brazilian athletes and a sort of Chris Farley sense of wonder when stars like Michael Phelps stop by for interviews.
Anyway, only a couple of minutes after the Bolt race, the camera suddenly cut to a very quick interview with Bolt — it actually caught the interview mid-sentence. I don’t think they were quite ready for him. And Bolt did not look happy at all. The reporter asked him what he thought about De Grasse speeding up there at the end. “It was not cool,” Bolt said, and he quickly shuffled off to the next interview.
Well, wait a minute, that did not seem like a buddy movie kind of moment at all. Bolt actually seemed really perturbed about the whole thing. But, you know, it was just a brief second of time, a quick interview that Bolt did not seem all that interested in doing in the first place. It could easily have been misread.
But then, a few minutes later, Bolt was BACK — apparently he realized that he had cut the home country TV short. He did not look any happier than he did the first time. The reporter wanted to show Bolt the end of the race. “Just ask your question,” Bolt said. “I don’t have time to watch the race.”
“The finish?” the reporter said.
“There was no reason to run that fast,” Bolt said grumpily.
“Can you break your world record?” the reporter asked.
“It’s going to be hard,” Bolt said. And he was off.
No, there was no mistaking it this time — Bolt came off as pretty darned irritated by De Grasse’s finish. So who knows? This is the spectacle that is Usain Bolt. Was he happy to clown around a bit with a protege and future king of the sport? Was he annoyed that the kid made him expend more energy than he usually does at a semifinal? Did he leave the track as the smiling star who crossed the line a touch ahead, or did he leave the track grumbling to himself that he needs to teach this kid some manners in the final?
Or was he all these things?
It’s all part of what make Usain Bolt the most electrifying athlete on planet earth. We don’t know what ticks inside him, and he doesn’t really want us to know. The only real answer with Bolt, of course, is: Tune in for the race.