One final time, Usain Bolt peered down the last 50 meters of his lane and saw sprinter upon sprinter running footsteps ahead of him.
One final time, the World’s Fastest Man furiously pumped the arms and legs on his gangly 6-foot-5 frame, desperately trying to reel in all those would-be winners as the finish line fast approached.
This time, the afterburners kicked in but not hard enough. Not one, but two overlooked and underappreciated Americans — Justin Gatlin and Christian Coleman — withstood what was once Bolt’s undeniable late charge.
This time, Bolt finished third in the 100-meter dash at world championships. That’s right: A bronze-medal finish Saturday night in the going-away party for one of the planet’s most entertaining icons and track and field’s lone shining star.
“No regrets,” Bolt insisted, long after a result that stunned a pumped-up crowd into near silence. “It was always going to end, no matter what happened — win, lose or draw. It doesn’t change anything in my career.”
Gatlin, who actually trailed Bolt at the halfway point, heard boos cascade loudly across the stadium when his winning time, 9.92 seconds, popped up on the scoreboard. The 35-year-old, who has served two doping bans and been widely cast as a villain to Bolt’s hero, went sprawling to the ground with a huge smile. Later, he bowed down to the man he finally defeated.
“I wanted to pay homage to him,” Gatlin said. “This night is still a magical night for track and field and Usain Bolt. I’m just happy to be one of his biggest competitors.”
Coleman, a 21-year-old in the first major race of his life, was in shock, too: “To beat someone I looked up to when I was growing up. I was just happy to be on the line with him,” he conceded.
Bolt, who finished third in a time of 9.95, accepted with class both the result, and the fact that, at 30, he probably is picking the perfect time to retire.
“I did it for the fans,” he said after collecting a bronze to go with his three world golds at 100 meters. “They wanted me to go for one more season. I came out and did the best I could.”
In the past, the scene after a Bolt race was really just an after-party masquerading as ceremony, filled with Bob Marley tunes, Jamaican flags and dancing. On Saturday, it felt surreal to anyone who’s been at one of these Bolt victories before.
With house music playing softly throughout the stadium where Bolt won the middle three of his nine Olympic finals, Gatlin and Coleman passed through the exit tunnel while the former champion took a 10-minute trip around the track, then detoured into the stands for selfies with the Jamaican fans who came across the ocean to see him one last time.
A few minutes after that, he stepped onto the track, kneeled down and kissed the finish line that he crossed in Lane 4.
Then, he gave the fans what they’ve come to expect: The famous “To The World” pose, which used to be the cherry on top of a raucous, fun-filled night. But where in the past the stadium would have still been brimming, this time, it was about one-eighth full and emptying quickly.
Bolt still has the 4x100 relay next weekend. He was asked if he wished he could run what is widely considered his best race — the 200, one of three events (100 and 4x100 are the others) where he holds the world record.
“It probably would’ve been even worse,” Bolt said. “I’m not in shape to run 200 meters right now.”
Should we have seen this coming? Maybe so.
Bolt raced very lightly this year, and his best time coming into the meet was the same 9.95 seconds he ran in his finale.
Other notable efforts Saturday in London:
-- Almaz Ayana, who had no official time for the 10,000 this season and had been hampered by injury, produced her biggest victory of all Saturday. After winning the Olympic title in Rio de Janeiro with a runaway world record, she made sure that her margin was even bigger at the worlds — make that three times as big.Ayana won in 30 minutes 16.32 seconds 46.37 seconds ahead of Ethiopian teammate Tirunesh Dibaba. In track terms, that is more than 300 meters in a 10-kilometer race. Agnes Tirop of Kenyua took bronze.
-- Andrius Gudzius of Lithuania won his first major discus title, holding off favorite Daniel Stahl of Sweden by only 2 centimeters. Gudzius threw 69.21 meters on his second of six attempts, while the Swede finished just short. Mason Finley of the United States took bronze. Defending champion Piotr Malachowski of Poland finished fifth.
-- Luvo Manyonga of South Africa took gold in the long jump with a leap of 8.48 meters, holding off Jarrion Lawson of the United States by 4 centimeters and going one better than his silver at last year’s Olympics. Ruswahl Samaai, also from South Africa, took bronze at the world championships with a jump of 8.32 meters. The competition remained tight until the final jump but Lawson only managed to travel 8.44. Olympic champion Jeffrey Henderson, who beat Manyonga by one centimeter in Rio de Janeiro, failed to qualify for the final.
-- Carolin Schafer of Germany ran a fast 200 meters to move ahead of Olympic champion Nafi Thiam in the hepathlon standings after four of seven events at the world championships. Trailing Thiam for most of the day, Schafer produced a time of 23.58 seconds, .99 seconds faster than Thiam, who won the shot put and shared first in the high jump before she lost the lead in the 200. Schafer has 4,036 points, an edge of 22 points over the Belgian. Yorgelis Rodriguez of Cuba was in third position with 3,905 points. The competition ends with the long jump, javelin and 800 meters on Sunday.
-- Five more medals were awarded at the world championships for athletes whose results were upgraded because of past doping offenses. Kara Goucher of the United States was given a silver medal for her run in the 10,000 meters at the 2007 worlds, while Jo Pavey of Britain was upgraded to bronze in the same race. Also, Irina Lishchynska of Ukraine was given silver for the 1,500 in 2007, Ineta Radevica was given silver for the long jump from the 2011 worlds and Rutger Smith of the Netherlands was given a bronze for the shot put from 2007.
Jamaica’s Usain Bolt strikes a pose after winning the gold medal in the 100 meters at the 2012 London Olympics.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Usain Bolt pulls ahead of Americans Ryan Bailey, left, and Justin Gatlin to win the gold medal in the 100 meters at the 2012 London Olympics.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Usain Bolt toys with Canada’s Andre de Grasse in the semifinals of the 200 metersat the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Usain Bolt kisses the track one last time in Rio after helping Jamaica win gold in the 400-meter relay.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Usain Bolt celebrates with the crowd after wiining the 100 meters at the Rio Olympics.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Usain Bolt acknowledges the crowd after Jamaica won golf in the 400-meter relay at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Usain Bolt cruises to the finish line and a gold medal in world-record time during the 200 meters at the 2008 Olympics.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Usain Bolt, wrapped in the flag of Jamaica, holds his shoes after winning the 200 meters at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)