With everything Usain Bolt has accomplished—two world records and three Olympic gold medals—his legacy should be safe. But people aren't that nice, and we have very short memories.
This is the plight of the successful athlete competing in multiple Olympics. Athletes like Bolt are obviously four years older, and they are putting the memory of their past successes on the line.
From a marketability standpoint, you are only as good as your last race. For an Olympic sprinter, the races of primary relevance are four years apart.
There is no quick redemption, or guarantee to compete the next time the world is watching.
There is a ton of esteem that goes with being called the world's fastest man. In this world, we love speed, almost no other quality is as appealing. Fans of other sports fantasize about the athletes' inclusion in their favorite form of athletics.
We wonder how the speed of the world's fastest man would translate abroad. The World Championships and other events are important, but the title is won and lost at the Olympics.
Bolt clearly claimed the distinction at the Beijing Games, and he's won five gold medals at the World Championships since his dominance in 2008.
But if he finishes anywhere but first in the London Olympics, he will not be able to call himself the fastest man on the planet, and that will remove much of his current appeal.
As far as legacy, we will look back at what he accomplished in 2008 with reverence. But much will be made of a failed performance in 2012. True legendary status is a given when one has had success in multiple Olympics.
He is only 25 years old, it wouldn't be unheard of for him to compete in 2016 at the age of 29. His legacy and popularity could withstand failure then better than now. If he doesn't capture gold in 2012, it's hard to see him as the favorite in 2016—if he even competes.
There is reason for concern regarding Bolt's potential success. He was beaten in the 200 meters by countryman Yohan Blake at the Jamaican Olympic Trials earlier this month. It was his second defeat in three days.
Here is the race:
If he loses to Blake at the Olympics, it will be another win for Jamaican sprinting, but a major hit to Bolt's current popularity. If he loses to someone from another country, the loss could be even bigger.
I'm predicting that he kicks it into high gear for the biggest stage, but if he doesn't his brilliant career will be a bit dulled.
It may not be fair, but it's true.
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