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Reign Over

The Bolt reprieve comes to a close

ON SATURDAY, a week after capturing bronze in the 100 meters at the World Championships in London (his first defeat in a major race since 2007), Usain Bolt will run the 4 ... 100-meter relay for Jamaica. And then, as he has repeatedly said, he will be gone.

Probably. Let's get this out of the way up front: There is a smirking assumption that Bolt will one day return. And maybe he will. But consider: He has run the 100 faster than 9.80 seconds just twice since the 2012 Olympics. And after being beaten by Justin Gatlin and Christian Coleman of the U.S., the myth of the untouchable Bolt is now debunked.

So let's assume this is the end. In sports, where we are accustomed to saying goodbye, we are insulated from sadness by the security of knowing that greatness often replaces itself. Bird and Magic left, Jordan came along. Jordan left, LeBron arrived.

But there is no replacing Usain Bolt. He has been the rare athlete who seems both transcendent and accessible, and he has made it all look fun (it has been) and easy (it hasn't been).

Consider the state of track and field before Bolt went viral in Beijing nine years ago. In 2006, Gatlin, the newly minted world-record holder, was nailed for a positive PED test and slapped with an eight-year ban (eventually reduced to four years). It was Bolt who made everyone forget about the doping scandals that constantly surround the sport, and he has been performing this duty for a decade.

For every problem posed, Bolt had been the answer. He was track's safe space. When he ran, there was almost exclusively elation. His departure leaves only more room for the negative, a stark truth evident in Gatlin's icy reception in London.

Yes, there are some in track who believe that Bolt isn't clean. But most choose not to question him. And not just because they want his performances to be real. He's a very tall man with the stride frequency of a smaller man, a combination that just might enable a person to run 100 meters in 9.58 seconds.

The logical choice to replace Bolt is Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa, whose world record 43.03 in the 400 meters in Rio was one of the most remarkable footraces ever run. He is stunningly gifted and could become the first man to run one lap in under 43 seconds. But to be the next Bolt, you need Bolt's style, and the truth is, nobody has that. For a decade he has been one of a kind, and he will remain one of a kind. His presence gave track and field a 10-year reprieve, and now that's over.