The Jamaican's time of 9.95 seconds to take third continued a trend of his times getting slower and slower at major championships.
Bronze medal in 100m in London highlights retirement the right decision for Bolt
If every athlete had the fairy-tale end to their career, going out on a high in a winning fashion, then quite probably those moments would not be cherished as greatly as they are when they happen.
Not everyone gets to bow out a victor, but if you had to pick one person who you would have done it, it would have been Usain Bolt.
This is a sprinter who has not only dominated the sport for the past decade, but had become the face of athletics.
A man whose outgoing persona, fun celebrations, and celebrity status matched his exploits on the track and helped keep athletics in the mainstream in an era of a lack of superstars to capture the imagination.
The feeling of bewilderment inside the capacity 50,000 Olympic Stadium in London on Saturday night told its own story.
They had come to see Bolt win a fourth world championship gold in the 100m in what was his last race at the distance at a major championship before his retirement.
Instead they saw him fail to convince in the semi-finals as he was beaten by Christian Crawford, and then lose to Justin Gatlin and Christian Coleman in the final to finish with a bronze.
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It was a credit to Bolt's character that in a moment of raw disappointment he had the thought and grace to congratulate Gatlin, a man the majority of spectators were less than thrilled to see triumphant, given his two failed doping tests in the past.
Bolt did not have to do that, but he did, which a grateful Gatlin responded to by bowing down next to the 30-year-old sprinter to highlight that nothing had changed despite the result - Bolt remains the greatest.
Gatlin is right. Yes, it was not a glorious ride into the sunset, but it does not hurt Bolt's legacy. If anything, it demonstrates that he is indeed mortal after all, and that even time and age catches up with even the very best.
It was nine summers ago in Beijing that Bolt came to forefront of the public imagination, winning the 100m and 200m with respective world record times of 9.69 seconds and 19.30 seconds.
He lowered them both a year later at the world championships in Berlin with efforts of 9.58 and 19.19, both of which still stand to this day.
In hindsight that was when Bolt peaked, and the subsequent eight years have been a slow journey back to the rest of the pack.
Since that 100m success in Berlin his times for the 100m at major finals have gone down gradually to where his time of 9.95 on Saturday night was only good enough for bronze.
Gatlin had been getting closer and closer to Bolt. He was fractions behind him two years ago at the world championships in Beijing, and had pushed him hard at the Olympics in Rio 12 months ago.
The fact it was Gatlin, who was banned for four years between 2006-2010 for a second failed doping test, with the original suspension of eight years having been cut in half on appeal, is what added salt to the wound of most people watching.
In an era when athletics has been dogged by doping scandal after doping scandal, Bolt has been a breath of fresh air and his image has transcended the sport.
In fairness to Gatlin it was not that he had improved his times to beat Bolt. He had run 9.85 in 2013 and 9.80 at the world championships in losing efforts to Bolt, yet 9.92 was enough this time for him to finally get that first 100m world championship gold that had eluded him since his ban.
This highlights that Gatlin is in regression, too, though running 9.92 at 35 is still a remarkable feat, but this tale remains about Bolt.
To have imagined seven years ago that a time of 9.92 would be enough to beat him would have been almost laughable.
But Bolt looked sluggish throughout his time in London. Blaming the starting blocks for an unconvincing run in the heats fooled no one, and it went on from there.
The loss does not detract from the 19 gold medals that he has to his name already. His record and legacy will stand in the annals of history.
He can still have the gold finale in the 4x100m relay with his Jamaican teammates on the penultimate day of action in London on Saturday.
But when Bolt looks at the bronze medal he earned on Saturday it will be a reminder that he has made the right decision to retire, as time catches up with everyone, even the greats.
Bolt's record at major events