RIO DE JANIERO -- In 2004, a skinny, teenaged Usain Bolt traveled to Athens to run in his first Olympics. He flamed out in the first heat of the 200 meters, aggravated an ankle injury, and immediately flew back home. Who could have known what lay ahead? Even after the 2008 Olympics, when Bolt smashed the 100-meter world record with such exuberant style he was chastised for not running faster, no one imagined an ending like this.
Not even Bolt himself.
"Not even close," he said Friday after anchoring Jamaica to victory in the 4x100 relay, the final leg of an athletic journey with no equal. "I would have never thought I could go back-to-back-to-back Olympics. The first one, I was just happy. The second one was a challenge, and the third one is just unbelievable."
It still feels unbelievable, even though it just happened.
Nine gold medals. Victories in the 100, 200 and 4x100 in three straight Olympics. The triple-triple. World records in each event. Done.
It also feels unbelievable that he's gone.
Bolt turns 30 on Sunday. He swears these were his last Olympics. No more cheering as Bolt runs down opponents like a parent collecting a fleeing toddler. No more witnessing his legend grow with every gold medal, toward something as close to perfection as sport and history allow.
We're used to seeing legends decline. Michael Jordan trying to come back with the Wizards, Muhammad Ali getting pummeled by Larry Holmes, Willie Mays stumbling in the outfield. The beloved Pele, too infirm or conflicted to light the cauldron at his native Brazil's Olympic Games.
Bolt, though, is still the world's fastest man, by far. In Rio, after his traditional championship run-up of slow times and semi-injuries, Bolt dominated the 100 and crushed the field in the 200. Nobody came within a figurative mile of beating him.
In the last leg of his last Olympic relay, Bolt took the baton slightly behind the field. Yet there was no drama, no fear that his legacy was in jeopardy. Only the thrill of knowing he was about to finish the race, the Olympics, and his career victorious.
One of Bolt's overlooked accomplishments is how he buried U.S. male sprint dominance. Jamaica now run tings, as they say on the island. So what happened in this last relay was fitting.
First, the American anchor, Trayvon Bromell, was unable to hold off Japan -- yes, Japan -- down the homestretch. Bromell fell across the finish line with an injured Achilles and a third-place finish. Japan's silver medal was anchored by Aska Cambridge, who was born in Jamaica to a Jamaican father and Japanese mother, then moved to Japan at age 2.
The team of Bromell, Justin Gatlin, Tyson Gay and Mike Rodgers donned American flags and took a victory lap. For Gatlin and Gay, both 34 years old, it was almost certainly their final moment of glory, however bittersweet. The lap had to be especially emotional for Gatlin, who won gold in the 100 in the 2004 Olympics, sat out four years for a doping violation, then could never escape Bolt's shadow.
But after circling Olympic Stadium, the team was informed that first baton pass, from Rodgers to Gatlin, took place out of the exchange zone. The Americans were disqualified, and Canada took the bronze.
"It was the twilight zone. It was a nightmare," Gatlin said. "You work so hard with your teammates, guys you compete against almost all year long. All that hard work just crumbles."
USA Track & Field appealed the ruling. If it stands, it will be the ninth time since 1995 that the U.S. men's relay team has been disqualified or failed to get the baton around the track.
"Pressure," the Jamaican sprinter Asafa Powell said mockingly after the race. "They're more focused on beating us than actually running a proper race. It's the pressure of trying to beat the Jamaicans."
No -- it was the pressure of trying to beat Bolt.
When Powell handed the baton to the G.O.A.T, they were behind the U.S. Bolt had been there before. His 6-foot-5, 207-pound frame, the largest ever for a world-class sprinter, takes a while to get going. He ran out of obscurity to win gold in 2008. He came back from injury and a pre-London loss to countryman Yohan Blake in 2012. He came back from slow starts to win almost all of his races. Of course he would come from behind to win one last time.
"As soon as I got my hand on the stick, I knew I had won. You know what I mean?" Bolt said. "There was no one on that track that could outrun me to the finish."
No one in the world. No one in history. Although Bolt made it look easy at the Olympics, he overcame an aversion to hard work and a history of injuries to perfectly peak every four years. In between his Olympic titles, he won every world championship 100 and 200, except for when he false-started the 100 at the 2011 worlds. No one is close to breaking his world records of 9.58 in the 100 and 19.19 in the 200.
Now he's leaving the grand stage. He plans to run a lucrative series of victory lap races in 2017, then retire for good.
"It's mixed feelings," Bolt said. "It's a relief because, it's just really stressful, the years that I've gone through, I had injury problems, it's been so much. It's a relief. I'm also sad that I have to leave, this is my last one. I'm gonna miss the competition. It's just so many different feelings right now."
Track and field will miss Bolt too, not just for his performances, but for being a clean athlete in a drug-fueled sport. Of the five fastest 100-meter runners in history -- Bolt, Gay (9.69), Blake (9.69), Powell (9.72), and Gatlin (9.74) -- only Bolt has never tested positive. It's as if the only way to compete with Bolt was to dope. And they still couldn't catch him.
Bolt did lose a few times, when he was out of shape or injured and ran slower than usual. But when it mattered most, Bolt never failed. Nine Olympic finals, nine gold medals. Done.
"All of them are special to me," Bolt said when asked which one stood out. "Without any of them, it wouldn't be the same. All of them are special, all of them means the world to me, you know what I mean? It's nine."
It could end up as eight. In retests of frozen blood and urine samples from the 2008 Olympics, Nesta Carter, who ran the 4x100 meter gold-medal relay with Bolt, tested positive. If Carter is stripped of his relay medal, Bolt will lose his, too.
"I don't think it will tarnish my legacy," Bolt said. "I've proved over and over again that I've done it clean. It will be disappointing, but it's life. I have no control over that."
"I've worked hard every Olympics to prove I'm the greatest."
It didn't start out that way. Growing up in the rural village of Sherwood Content, Bolt loved cricket, soccer, or any sport he could play. He became a junior world 200-meter champion at age 15 but didn't take track seriously until his failure in Athens.
"Then over the years I started making goals," Bolt said. "And here I am."