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Bolt, Obama and Expectations

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As a fan of Jamaican sprint sensation Usain Bolt, I kept a surprising calm when he false-started in the 100m finals at the World championships in Daegu, South Korea. My litigious instincts didn't lead me to question the silly IAAF rule that automatically disqualifies an athlete for a false start. Instead, I felt almost a sense of relief.

In Bolt's failure, I saw a momentary tumble from grace that I, as a fan, could live with. Better a mistake of exuberance than a positive drug test; or a show of mental indiscipline, rather than an outright beating. Besides, in the absence of his arch rivals American Tyson Gay and country man Asafa Powell, there was a feeling that Bolt was really competing with himself. Suddenly, the ace sprinter's challenge was a subtle one - unlike the raw aggression he unleashes in one sprint dash after another. Could he maintain his composure after messing up on athletics' biggest stage?

As I watched track fans convulse with shock at Bolt's inauspicious 100m exit, I thought back to the early, heady days of the Obama presidency. Barack Obama had traversed the improbable path from Illinois state senator, to US Senator for the state of Illinois and conqueror of the Clinton political machine in the democratic primaries, to become the first black president of the United States. As if to register approval from some global electorate, the Nobel committee in Norway awarded the prize for peace to Obama, a mere few months after he had taken the presidential oath of office. In this episode, it would be the judges of this prestigious international award who could have been called guilty of a stunning false start, by bestowing the Nobel Prize well before new president had done anything worthy of the honour.

Faced with high unemployment numbers and a pervasive sense of gloom in the US, we have seen the once glowing narratives about Obama curdle into antipathy. Yet despite an intractable economic recession to explain the president's new unpopularity - and in the case of Bolt, his spectacular flame- out because of an athlete-unfriendly, one-false-start-and-you-are-out rule - there can be limited sympathy for either. Impossible demands to delivering results are par for the course for elite performers. Fairly or not, both inhabit a box, based on ephemeral public passions.

Bolt lingered in the starting blocks for the 200m final, not risking a repeat of what happened in the shorter sprint. Nevertheless, he ran a world leading time to win the gold medal. This, he followed up with a blistering anchor leg in the 4 x 100m relays, copping gold and a new world record. Back was the child-like mugging for the camera and his love affair with the crowded stadium. In post-race interviews, he cast no blame on the controversial false start rule: it was his cock-up and not the rule that cost him his 100m crown, he acknowledged. All the headlines later screamed Bolt's "comeback", "redemption" and reasserted "dominance."

Aren't popularity and celebrity comparable to a Ponzi scheme - doomed to one day, sooner than later, cease from delivering amazing results? By making the exceptional appear normal, Bolt smashes records and re-writes standards that soon, he will be hard-pressed to repeat. It's the tragic beauty about brilliance, that it eventually outdoes itself. Between the dint of an athletics stadium and the clamour of a recession-ravaged electorate, Bolt and Obama appear to be in the midst of vastly similar projects. They both trod a path where increasingly, their best efforts may well not win the moment.

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