The uneasy farewell of two sports icons – The San Diego Union-Tribune
After Emperor Augustus defeated Antony and Cleopatra to bring Egypt under Roman rule in 27 BC, the Senate decided a suitable honor was renaming things after him. So the calendar’s eighth month became Augustus, later shortened to August in English. It was given 31 days instead of 30 because the previous month named after Julius Caesar (July) had 31 and the Senate didn’t want to shortchange the man who conquered Egypt.
The word, august, came to be defined as respected, impressive, inspiring reverence, marked by dignity or grandeur.
It was a fitting if unwitting choice, then, for two of history’s most iconic athletes to end their careers after imperiously lording over their sports for the past decade.
On Aug. 13 in London, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt limped through an emotional “victory” lap at track and field’s World Championships despite not actually winning anything and declared: “I’ve seen too many people retire and come back just to make it worse or to shame themselves. I won’t be one of those people.”
Two weeks later in Las Vegas, boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. slogged through 10 rounds before knocking out Conor McGregor to improve to 50-0, one better than Rocky Marciano’s fabled 49-0. Mayweather has retired before and returned, but this time insisted: “You won’t see me in the ring no more. Any guy that’s calling me out, forget it.”
One month, two mythical figures, both moving on.
Maybe the trickiest decision for elite athletes is knowing when is when, accurately weighing twinkling star with emptying hourglass, distinguishing long shadows from darkness. Complicating the calculations are money and celebrity, and the result too often is the pitiful shell of a former self.
Bolt should have sailed into the Jamaican sunset after the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where he won his obligatory three gold medals in the 100 and 200 meters and 4×100 relay. And he sounded then like he knew that. There was a reticence, a reluctance, in his voice when he spoke about one final hurrah the following summer at the World Championships in London.
He’s never been particularly fond of training and he’s been particularly fond of partying, and it was clear the Bolt of 2016 was not the Bolt that captivated and dominated the Beijing Olympics in 2008. But there was also a carrot: He reportedly made $32.5 million during his golden 2016, most of it from endorsement deals, … and $34.2 million in 2017 for what amounted to 60 seconds of racing.
He junked his best event, the 200 meters, because it requires more strenuous training and he strategically picked what few 100s he ran. There were reports that his management team had Canada’s Andre De Grasse, on paper his biggest threat, bumped from a July race in Monaco, where he beat a ho-hum field in a pedestrian 9.95 seconds.
The problem with the World Championships is it’s harder to control the field, even if De Grasse, who also is aligned with Puma, suspiciously pulled out with an alleged injury. Everyone else was there, though, and the invincible Bolt had no choice but to line up and race them, ready or not.
In the seven Olympics or World Championships since 2008, Bolt had failed to win only two of 21 finals: once when he was disqualified for a false start, once when a 4×100 relay teammate got popped for doping. In the London 100, he finished behind two Americans, a 21-year-old who was running slower in August than June after a grueling college season; and Justin Gatlin, a man six years his senior who had never beaten him.
A week later, he anchored Jamaica’s 4×100 team. He reached back for the baton, took 11 of his giant strides and blew a hamstring.
“I’ve proven to the world that I’m one of the greatest athletes,” said Bolt, who indeed has more money and global fame than any track athlete in history. “I don’t think this changes anything. I’ve done my part as an athlete to uplift the sport … I can’t be too disappointed. I did my best.”
Two weeks later on the other side of the world, Mayweather exited in a more dignified fashion, if only slightly.
If Bolt was courageous but imprudent, the 40-year-old “Money” Mayweather was cowardly but ingenious. In boxing you can pick your opponent, and he did with a nod toward his legacy and his nickname: shunning the sport’s top contenders for an MMA fighter who had lost three times in UFC and never boxed professionally.
“I did walk away from the sport before,” said Mayweather, who had “retired” 23 months earlier after a string of fights against less than overwhelming opposition. “Very comfortable. I didn’t have to come back … But I’m not a damn fool. If I see an opportunity to make $300 million, $350 million in 36 minutes, why not? I had to do it.”
He also, candidly, said this: “I chose the right dance partner to dance with.”
It was more farce than fight, and purists will argue that passing the legendary Marciano in such a fashion deserves an asterisk. Mayweather will laugh all the way to the bank, counting his money – he is believed to be only the third athlete to surpass $1 billion in career earnings (joining Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan) – while his sport frantically tries to replace his radiance.
Their final acts may have played differently on stage, but their departures leave similarly toxic exhaust fumes. Both were transcendent figures, and despite their best intentions they ultimately elevated themselves more than their declining sports.
Those in the know whispered that a man of Bolt’s size covering 100 meters so fast defied human mechanics, but somehow he levitated above the doping morass that blights track and field. People wanted to think he was clean, and so they did.
Losing to Gatlin, who has served two drug suspensions and has a coach that admitted under oath to doping and now wants us to believe he’s running faster clean in his mid-30s than he did a decade earlier juiced, sent an ominous message about track’s future. So did Mayweather’s performance, providing added legitimacy to boxing’s biggest threat by allowing an MMA guy to land 111 punches (22 more than Manny Pacquiao did in 12 rounds).