THE retirement of Usain Bolt prompted the BBC to ask this week how the sport could replace "the flag-bearer who for years has almost single-handedly carried athletics".

The unspoken implication seemed to be that the Jamaican is irreplaceable. Bolt is simply the latest charismatic icon whose departure has been lamented, yet recurrent change is the nature of all sport; indeed, of all human endeavour. Future generations inevitably surpass their forebears.

Bolt is deservedly revered, though still short of Muhammad Ali whose last fight was in 1981. When Ali died 35 years later, he attracted an unmatched outpouring of affection and reverence. He received numerous "Sportsman of the Century" accolades. In the BBC version, he received more votes than contenders who included Pele, Jesse Owens, and Jack Nicklaus.

However, comparison of boxers down the years – especially across weight divisions – is a misconstruction. It relies on subjective assessment. It's no easier comparing footballers, cricketers, or golfers of different eras. Track and field is different. The stopwatch and tape measure are immutably objective – far less forgiving or fallible than human memory. So Bolt will survive as peerless and incomparable for just as long as his records remain intact. And then he will be another chapter in history alongside Owens and Carl Lewis.

Sport, globally and nationally, struggles to replace icons. The span between swimmer Mark Spitz in 1972 and Michael Phelps surpassing his Olympic gold-medal haul in Beijing was 36 years. Andy Murray only recently relieved British tennis of the 77-year burden of Fred Perry.

Athletics has repeatedly bred replacement heroes and heroines whose seemingly impregnable records are often surprisingly quickly surpassed.

The sub four-minute mile was within grasp for almost two decades until Roger Bannister broke it. Then it lasted 46 days, and soon four-minute milers were a dime a dozen. More than 1300 runners have now broken it, according to the National Union of Track Statisticians. And that excludes thousands who have run as fast in the more frequently-contested metric equivalent.

Bob Beamon's long jump at the Mexico Olympics was hailed as the single greatest athletics feat ever. Lynn Davies, the defending long jump champion, told Beamon he had "destroyed the event". It was suggested that Beamon's mark might last 100 years, yet it was surpassed within 23 years by Mike Powell.

It's worth noting that Jesse Owens' 1935 world long jump record (8.13 metres) lasted more than 25 years and would have won every Olympic gold until Beamon in 1968, and would still have taken bronze behind Greg Rutherford in London 2012.

The Flying Finn, Paavo Nurmi, was the first truly iconic athletics Olympian. He set 29 world records from 1500 metres to 20 kilometres, and won nine gold and three silver medals in three Olympics. He was favourite for the 10,000m and marathon at a fourth: Los Angeles 1932, when he was banned for professionalism.

Within three years, Nurmi's star was eclipsed. Owens set his six world records in 45 minutes – the long jump in his only attempt. In an era of increasing specialisation, his six-record feat is unlikely ever to be matched.

Zatopek was the next global athletics icon, with his 18 world records and a still-unmatched Olympic treble in 1952 (5k 10k and marathon).

The Czech has his challengers in the endurance pantheon: Ethiopians Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebrselassie. The former won 19 World, Olympic, and World cross-country titles and set six world records. Gebrselassie won 12 global titles and set 27 world records, from 2000m to the marathon - most prodigious range ever.

Ron Clark set a stack of records but won no major title; Mo Farah won a stack of titles but has no world record.

There was hurdler Ed Moses with four world records and 122 races undefeated over a decade, and Sergey Bubka, with his 35 world pole vault records. Both were lauded and lionised, but their records are now history. So are those of Lewis who in 1984 matched Owen's four golds from 1936. With his star waning, the sport was bereft, worrying about the impact on corporate support and TV rights fees. Enter Michael Johnson with his eccentric style and unique 200/400 Olympic double.

None of them proved irreplaceable.

But back to Bolt. He well merits the full lexicon of superlatives. However, he does not have the most sub 10-second 100 metres times, nor the most 100m records, nor has he lowered the record by the biggest margin.

Asafa Powell wins on the first two counts and Bob Hayes on the third.

Of the 125 people to have run sub-10.00, Bolt has 50 clockings to Powell's 97. Bolt has three world records, Powell has broken or equalled it four times.

The world 100m best fell in successive Olympic finals, from 10.25 by Armin Hary in 1960, to 10.06 by Bob Hayes in '64. Bolt has now held the world best for nine years, lowering it by 0.16sec. In the nine years from Hary's 10.25, the world 100m record fell by 0.30. By that rate of progress, the world best should now be considerably lower than Bolt's mark.

Yes, Bolt's departure heralds a new order, but it is also an opportunity. "When will we see their likes again?" is the mantra of a media obsessed by heroes.

New ones will assuredly arise. Perhaps sooner than we think.