Part 1: Riding the lightning flash
In a sterile, makeshift studio inside Toronto's Four Seasons Hotel in early June, Usain Bolt is playing to the bright lights and TV cameras again as he is paraded from set to set for predictable, fawning interviews. It's been like this ever since his mind-numbing speed show last summer at the Beijing Olympics track-and-field competition, where with joyful ease he obliterated the world records in the 100- and 200-meter events and won a third gold medal by running the third leg on Jamaica's world-record-setting 4x100 relay team.
His public appearances are orchestrated now, and it works. In Toronto, Bolt attracts boatloads of attention. His meet appearances are orchestrated now, too, and that works as well. Wherever he runs, he pockets boatloads of cash. He has jetted into Canada from his Caribbean homeland on this occasion to advance both missions. On Wednesday, he accepts the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Award, given each year as the Laureus World Sports Academy's way of "harnessing the power of sport to promote social change and celebrating sporting excellence." Dressed in blue jeans, a navy blue blazer, white Pumas (his shoe sponsor) and an open-collar white shirt that hangs untucked below his waist, the 22-year-old occasionally interrupts the nearly two-hour media gaggle to good-naturedly perform biceps curls with the solid silver statuette in his right hand. He is playfully animated, like a young Muhammad Ali. Like a young Shaquille O'Neal.
The next evening, under a steady drizzle and before a full house of about 5,000 on the University of Toronto campus, Bolt picks up a $250,000 appearance fee for covering the 100 meters in 10 seconds flat, easily disposing of the stragglers brought in by promoters to fill the other seven lanes.
The world's fastest man is open for business.
"Back home, I was talking to my friends,'' Bolt says in a serious tone. "I kind of [asked], 'When you get the gold [medal], what is there to do for you? What is next?' You got to do something that is impossible to reach. I set myself a standard. I want to be a legend. So that is the biggest goal.
"If I stay on top and win all these awards, I'm sure to be a legend. I want to be a track-and-field legend. That's what I work for."
If anybody can breathe life back into the business of being the world's fastest man, it's probably Bolt. But that's a monumental challenge. It sounds like a heady résumé -- the fastest man in the world, the record-holder in the 100-meter dash -- but it's been a long time since the title carried much panache. It's been a long time since the fastest man on the planet was a glamour cat with a recognizable name and mug. Jesse Owens. "Bullet" Bob Hayes. Carl Lewis. Track-and-field legends.
Since those days, the sport has taken a turn that has steadily eased it off the radar, at least in this country. Canadian Ben Johnson wasn't the first (and certainly wasn't the last) sprint demon to be fueled by performance-enhancing drugs, but the tipping point for the legacy of the world's fastest man quite likely came when he turned up dirty shortly after his jaw-dropping record dash at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
In the two decades since then, eight sprinters -- from Lewis (9.92 seconds in 1988) to Bolt (9.69 in 2008) -- have borne the badge of being the world's fastest man but only flirted with the favor the title once held. Maurice Greene (9.79 in 1999) parlayed his popularity into a season-long gig on "Dancing with the Stars." Justin Gatlin (9.77 in 2006) tried and failed to follow Bob Hayes' path to the NFL as a wide receiver, and now is waiting out a four-year doping suspension that could expire after this season. Leroy Burrell (9.85 in 1994) had the record on his curriculum vitae when he landed the head coaching job at the University of Houston.
Down in Alabama, Tim Montgomery (9.78 in 2002) is the fastest man in the prison yard, where he's doing time for bank fraud and heroin distribution. Even Hayes, who set the world record in the 100-yard dash (9.1 seconds in 1963) and tied the record in the 100 meters (10.0 in 1964), struggled later in his life to keep his name attached to whatever noble qualities might once have characterized the title. Away from the competitive sports world, Hayes battled drug and alcohol abuse. He served a 10-month prison sentence after pleading guilty in 1979 to delivering narcotics to an undercover cop. He died at 59 in 2002.
Describing the significance of being the world's fastest man in a Sports Illustrated article the year before his death, Hayes said, "I'll tell you this: Once you become that, you can only go down."
Among the surviving world's fastest men, only Lewis still remains marketable, though his acting career hasn't set Hollywood ablaze. By all accounts, the man once known as "King Carl" has made a handsome living off his records.
Now comes Bolt, whose striking, 6-foot-5 frame and happy-go-lucky air make him a spring breeze in an overcast sport populated with supersized egos, back-stabbers and fireplug physiques. He runs fast and smiles a lot, and those are solid building blocks for the construction of a track-and-field legend and the reconstruction of the world's fastest man legacy. Both nascent projects are on the line this weekend when he faces, among others, American sprinter Tyson Gay at the World Track and Field Championships in Berlin. The men's 100-meter preliminaries are Saturday. The final is Sunday.
Bolt and Gay have also agreed to run against each other in Brussels, Belgium, on Sept. 4.
In Toronto in June, Bolt says, "I'm just happy to be the fastest man in the world. It is just something major. People look at it." As he speaks, as he works the media circus, his London-based agent, Ricky Simms, lectures to whoever will listen about "building the brand." Simms identifies his client's prime endorsement deals so far as Puma (reportedly $1.5 million a year), Gatorade and Digicel, a Caribbean cell phone company, and predicts Bolt could soon earn $10 million a year in prize money, appearance fees and endorsement income if he continues to dominate on the track.
"What he says is, he wants to be a legend," Simms says. "At this stage of life, he has run one Olympic Games. He has won a lot of medals there. He has never won the World Championships, so that is the target for this year. As everyone says, he has to keep going for many years and be successful. So we don't have to take every opportunity here this year. We have to make sure he is an athlete first and foremost. And with time, we have to build his brand, and everything will follow.
"Of course, every meet organizer, if they have one athlete under contract, they want Usain Bolt because he puts buns on seats. He can sell tickets. So, of course, it is important for the meet to have him there. These meets want him, for sure."
Part 2: Making it matter
Backtrack some 25 years, when -- with fast-talking agent/manager Joe Douglas by his side -- a young Carl Lewis was off and running to the bank as well as to the finish line. Douglas famously compared King Carl to the hot entertainer of the day, the late Michael Jackson. At the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, Lewis won gold in the 100, 200, the long jump and the 4 x 100 relay, duplicating Jessie Owens' legendary feats at the 1936 Berlin Games.
Lewis, sporting a flat-top haircut, eventually broke the 100-meter world record three times, although he came into two of his tenures as the world's fastest man -- for a time of 9.93 at the 1987 World Championships in Rome and a 9.92 at the Seoul Olympics -- only after Johnson's positive drug test in Seoul invalidated the Canadian's records. When Lewis was on top, track and field mattered, at least relative to today, and he was a major reason the media and the sporting public paid attention. For more than a decade, he stayed in demand for European meet promoters and Madison Avenue executives.
Bolt is just beginning that process. And Douglas, who still talks fast, suggests the Jamaican might never approach Lewis' longevity, popularity or money-making ability. Douglas, for example, as much as snickers at the notion that $10 million a year for Bolt is a noteworthy goal.
"He won't be the first, I can tell you that,'' Douglas says, leaving a been-there-done-that impression. "Carl did very, very well, and we wound up with, I think it was 84 commercials during his running career."
If you believe the scuttlebutt, Lewis' biggest payday for a meet appearance approached $1 million -- four times Bolt's Toronto payday. That might be overstated, but there is little doubt that no one has capitalized on the title of the world's fastest man more than Lewis did. Some say Lewis earned even more after his career ended -- after a long-jump gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics -- than he did while he competed.
"Historically, Carl has done more with being the world's fastest man," acknowledges Emanuel Hudson, who manages one of the other former world-record holders, Maurice Greene. "It is a good 15 years since this guy really did anything running. But he has been around being Carl Lewis, in terms of promoting himself in the sport and his whole persona. He is a celebrity."
Being the world's fastest man stuck to Lewis, as it did to Owens and Hayes. It helps to dominate the track for long stretches, as Lewis and Maurice Greene did, and it helps to set the record on the Olympic stage, as Bolt and Donovan Bailey did.
Bailey, then 28, returned to Canada from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics with 100-meter gold and the world-record time of 9.84 seconds. And though a ruptured Achilles tendon effectively ended his career two years later, he managed to pad his bank account with global endorsement deals, particularly in Asia, as well as a $1.5 million paycheck from a much-hyped match race with 200-meter gold medalist Michael Johnson, rival track star of the Atlanta Games.
"The Asian market loves the fastest man in the world title thing," says Bailey, now a Toronto businessman. "Or maybe it's the black guy thing, I don't know. That, too. [He laughs.] But yeah, Carl [Lewis] did a decent job in Asia, in Japan. And I kind of took it a step further from Canada, where I went to Asia, Europe, South America, the Caribbean."
Greene's world record didn't happen at the Olympics, but he won the 100-meter gold medal in Sydney in 2000, and he enjoyed a longer and more successful career than Bailey did. Even in his retirement, Greene's adidas endorsement contract was just renewed. That came as he prepared to spend a week earlier this summer in Bangalore, India, where the personable sprinter -- rather than some skin-and-bones distance runner -- served as the spokesman for a major 20K road race.
"He is the fastest man in the world, so they wanted him," says Hudson, his agent.
Others haven't been so fortunate. The title doesn't come with a guarantee of lifelong riches.
Consider Asafa Powell, twice the world-record holder but no longer even the fastest man on the island of Jamaica. His standing in the sprint community is further devalued because Powell lacks the hardware of a champion, possessing neither an Olympic nor a World Championship gold medal in one of the individual sprints.
Or Gatlin, who graced the Wheaties cereal box after he won gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Two years later, he returned to the Wheaties box after he set the world record in a meet in Qatar. Now, he's almost four years into a drug suspension that he estimates has cost him nearly $5 million in potential earnings.
Or take the plight of Jim Hines, the son of an Oakland construction worker who was the world's fastest man back in the summer of 1968. The first to run 100 meters in under 10 seconds, Hines captured gold in a world-record time of 9.95 seconds at the Mexico City Olympics. But his career predated the lucrative track days ushered in by Carl Lewis; later, he failed to catch on in the NFL, as Bob Hayes, his sprint predecessor and a Hall of Fame football player, did.
Hines, on the advice of a newly hired agent, is no longer talking about the past unless somebody writes him a check.
"I've done so much for free," Hines says, declining ESPN.com's interview request. "And I'm at the age now, 'cause [money] would be a help for me. I got hellified credentials and [it] seems like [it's] not been addressed for who I am and what I've done."
Charlie Greene knows the feeling. In a later heat at the same Sacramento meet where Hines first went under 10-flat, Greene tied the new world record. Today, his e-mail address is a reminder of that greatness: purespeed68. Back then, Greene, Hines & Co. were lined up to succeed Hayes, the greatest sprinter in the eyes of many since Owens, when Hayes left track and field for the NFL and, eventually, induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Charlie Greene remembers gracing the cover of Jet magazine, but little else in the way of fame and fortune.
"If somebody were to do today what I did, they would easily make $1 million," says Greene, who lives in retirement in Lincoln, Neb., and undergoes kidney dialysis three days a week. "Because for four years in college, I didn't lose to anybody. I won all the time. I got six NCAA titles. When somebody gets one now, everybody gets excited. I won the 100 yards three years in a row. It is in the record books. I'm not shooting smoke trying to build myself up.
"I was born too soon to make that money."
These days, it's different. Endorsement and shoe deals for the best sprinters. Appearance fees on the international circuit, most of which is contested in Europe. Some top athletes can earn as much as $1 million a season.
But what does it take for the world's fastest man to separate himself from the pack and close the big money deals?
"To be popular, the athlete needs to learn to communicate," says Douglas, King Carl's promoter. "I sent Carl to speech class. I sent him to acting class. He was very, very shy in the '80s. Now you can't shut him up. He speaks very well and communicates very well. He doesn't say, 'I ran good,' because then you turn off all the CEOs and older people.
"So you need to speak well, run fast and communicate well. And the manager can help. But if somebody takes third in Olympic Games, the manager can't do anything. Forget it."
Part 3: High-speed pursuit
Charlie Francis lives in the upscale Rosedale section of Toronto, just a 15-minute walk from where Bolt is to run later in this June evening. In the afternoon, Ben Johnson drops by the beautifully restored 19th-century home to visit his old coach. The two reminisce like frat brothers about fast times and foreign sports cars, about the nasty Carl Lewis rivalry and about the millions they lost when Johnson's urine showed the presence of the steroid Stanozolol in Seoul.
If Johnson is bitter about anything, he conceals it well. Like Charlie Greene, he uses his e-mail address as a reminder of what he left behind in Seoul: benjohnson979. He's 47 now but still carries a muscular sprinter's build as he saunters into Francis' family room wearing a lime green knit shirt and black slacks. He slides into a seat alongside his coach, surrounded by a keyboard and guitars that Francis shares with his 10-year-old son, James.
"This is my life. It is fun," says Johnson, who spends some of his time training athletes now. "I would have made more money, but I was successful and made money, too. Maybe it would have been different, but I can't worry or change things. I believe there is a reason it happens. I believe in God and it is supposed to happen. I'm OK. I'm happy."
Johnson spends some of this time training athletes now, including -- in the past -- Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona and a son of Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi. But he undoubtedly is the most devalued world's fastest man ever. His showdown with Lewis at the 1988 Games was perhaps the most anticipated and hyped 100-meter race in the annals of track and field, but Johnson left Seoul exposed on the Olympic stage for all the world to witness by the most famous positive test in history. He let the genie out of the bottle on doping in the sport, and in some way, his dislike for Lewis drove him to do it.
"His ignorance, I think drives me 15 to 20 percent," Johnson says.
That day 21 years ago, Johnson rattled the disciplined American sprinter, according to Lewis' ex-coach, particularly in the bullish manner with which Johnson blasted out of the blocks en route to his record time in Seoul.
"That was the first time I saw Carl get out of his own race in his whole career," recalls Tom Tellez, Lewis' longtime mentor. "Ben Johnson was out so fast that Carl couldn't believe it. And he didn't run his race. He kept looking over at Ben Johnson about two or three times in the race. He has never done that. And I don't know if Carl would have beat him, but he'd have been a lot closer to him had he run his own race."
Lewis declined ESPN.com's request for an interview, but one of his former training partners and another member of the world's fastest man club says Lewis' focus was on winning Olympic medals rather than setting world records.
"See, Carl was a whole different animal when there was a medal on the line," says Leroy Burrell, whose 9.85 set the world record in 1994. "That was his thing. And I think Carl went about doing whatever he needed to do, as far as preparation was concerned, to compete at the Games."
By contrast, Johnson says he was always pedal-to-the-metal about records. As early as 1986, Francis and Johnson knew the world record was in his future based on the progression of his indoor 60-meter times.
"I always trained to beat the clock," Johnson recalls. "We had the confidence that I could run 10 seconds or 9.8 at any given time based on times we were doing in practice. We trained at top speed at all times. So I always tried to run against the clock to be the best I can be at any time. I mean, it is a great honor to be the world's fastest man."
Francis says the man who powered down the track in Seoul to set the world record 21 years ago -- the same sprinter, presumably, who carried traces of Stanozolol and its metabolites in his urine -- could run in the 9.6s on the harder, faster surfaces of recent years.
"No way in hell this guy [Bolt] would beat me," Johnson says, laughing out loud. "No way. You'll never see another Ben Johnson."
But from the start back then in the '80s, Johnson and Francis understood that the regimen for awe-inspiring times on the track, for competing with King Carl, included performance-enhancing drugs. They told a Canadian board of inquiry, called after the bust in Seoul, that steroid use and its accompanying denials were the norm in the hypocritical world of track and field. If you weren't doping, you weren't really trying.
That tune still plays for them today.
"The fact of the matter is, Ben is not alone, but he gets nailed," Francis says, reflecting back two decades. "Well, he is perceived as the worst [cheater] in the world. And of course, they have to make the worst example. And nobody can be worse than me because I talk about [performance-enhancing drug use in the sport] under oath.
"For me, my life has been better since I stopped coaching anyway. But you have taken this guy's livelihood away. I mean, he lost more than anybody."
Johnson hit his first financial jackpot after his world-record time of 9.83 seconds at the 1987 World Championships in Rome, achieving instant notoriety for being the first to take Lewis down on one of the grandest of international stages. By the time the Seoul Olympics rolled around, his monthly income was already $480,000 from endorsements, most of which were strategically timed for renewal after the '88 Games, according to Francis. Johnson had developed an incredibly lucrative revenue stream in Japan, in particular.
"He was the No. 1 guy in Japan," says Francis, who these days dabbles as a personal fitness consultant and oversees a popular Web site. "Not in sports, but in anything. And second was [actor] Gene Hackman."
That all ended up squeezed tighter than Joan Rivers' face in the aftermath of Seoul. By Francis' estimation, the Olympic disqualification in 1988 cost Johnson close to $100 million over the next 10 years.
How much it cost the men who followed Johnson into the record book is inestimable. From that moment on, no corporate sponsor, no meet promoter, no ticket-buying track fan, has been able to trust beyond the shadow of a doubt that the dollars they spend on a world-class sprinter are going to an athlete whose speed comes naturally.
Of the seven men who have run sub-9.8 times in the 100, three -- Johnson, Montgomery and Gatlin -- have been busted for PEDs. Last year, a Mexican steroid trafficker reportedly told federal investigators that he had advised 12 Olympic medalists about performance-enhancing drugs since 1997 and that he supplied some of them -- including Maurice Greene -- in 2003 and 2004.
Greene has not been charged and denies obtaining or using any drugs from Angel Guillermo Heredia.
Part 4: Test tube velocity
In November 2000, Victor Conte, the supplement guru, came up with an ambitious scheme to put marketing juice into his ZMA product, which he promoted as a natural testosterone-boosting supplement for bodybuilders and athletes. The plan was called "Project World Record," and -- as one might expect of the never-shy Conte -- a colorful logo was created and plastered on T-shirts. The idea: Turn a slender, talented sprinter named Tim Montgomery into the world's fastest man.
For three days inside BALCO's offices in Burlingame, Calif., Conte brainstormed with Montgomery and his coach, Trevor Graham, along with two outside consultants -- the Stanford-educated and cerebral Francis (Ben Johnson's former coach) and world-class trainer and former pro bodybuilding champ Milos "The Mind" Sarcev. By the end of the third day, everything was in place: track and weight training programs, and nutrition and pharmacology programs, which included the use of "the clear," a designer steroid, undetectable at the time.
"What I had envisioned were advertisements with Tim that said, 'The world's fastest human, powered by ZMA,'" Conte says now. "I can tell you, it pissed a lot of people off. Like [rival sprint coach] John Smith and his athletes, when he went to the first meet in 2001, which was the Modesto Relays, and here is Tim strutting around in a T-shirt that says 'Project World Record.' It was obvious we were coming for [then record holder] Maurice Greene. And we were coming for that 9.79 to break it. And we weren't shy about it."
Montgomery got his world record, but there is an irony in the process. If not for the in-your-face Project World Record, Conte might not have riled Graham to the point that, after a falling-out with Conte, he alerted investigators to the clear. And following that logic, it's possible the lid might never have blown on the BALCO scandal, which shed a blinding light on the doping culture in sports. There'd likely be no federal indictment of Barry Bonds, no congressional hearings in Washington, and no investigation to determine whether Roger Clemens lied in front of a House subcommittee.
And it's possible Montgomery might not be in prison.
At the time, Conte, convicted mastermind of the biggest doping scandal in sports history, strongly believed the world's top sprinters -- Montgomery's peers -- were already using performance-enhancing drugs.
"I have no firsthand knowledge about some of these athletes," Conte says, "but I think it is likely that if not all, the majority of the world's fastest human titleholders have used some type of performance-enhancing substance or method in their preparation."
Conte believed he could take any track athlete ranked in the top 10 in the world and, using his drug-fueled protocols, elevate him or her to No. 1.
Montgomery, who had a history of steroid use before he hooked up with Conte, showed up at the BALCO offices weighing 148 pounds -- thus his nickname, "Tiny Tim." Within the first year of the "Project World Record" protocols, he'd packed on 20 pounds of muscle and upped his bench press from 265 to 345 pounds. He clocked a career-best in both the 60-meter dash (6.46 seconds) and the 100 meters (9.84), and he finished second to Greene in the 100 at the 2001 World Championships and earned $600,000 during the season, easily the most lucrative of his career.
A year later, after a nasty split with Conte over, among other things, finances, Montgomery ran a 9.78 in Paris to become the world's fastest man.
Conte says Montgomery couldn't have run as fast as he did without the drugs, and says the sprinter had enough of the clear to get him through the 2002 season after they parted ways. Montgomery says he was clean when he broke the record, though he's since been stripped of the mark and his silver medal at the World Championships, and his performance-enhancing drug use has been well documented.
"Trevor and Victor had us believe that the only way to take down Maurice [Greene] was drugs," Montgomery says in prison camp on Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, where he's serving his time on bank-fraud and heroin-distribution convictions. "Nothing forces you, [but] if you want to be that [top] person, that is where you're forced to take anabolic steroids. To win or even play on the field, it took steroids to do."
The evidence from BALCO and its spin-off scandals is enough to cast suspicion on anyone who runs fast now or ran fast at any time over the last 20 or more years. The Carl Lewis critics, especially those north of the border in Canada, were fired up several years ago by the release of U.S. Olympic Committee records revealing that Lewis tested positive at the 1988 Olympic trials for small amounts of banned stimulants found in cold medications. At the time, U.S. officials deemed it an inadvertent use and dropped the case, saying the amount wasn't enough to be performance-enhancing.
And Lewis, as it happens, was among the first to cast doubts about Bolt's performance in Beijing and the credibility of Jamaica's drug testing, telling Sports Illustrated's Web site shortly after the 2008 Olympics: "I'm still working with the fact that he dropped from 10-flat to 9.6 in one year. If you don't question that in a sport that has the reputation it has right now, you're a fool."
In a more recent interview with ESPN.com, Lewis' longtime manager, Douglas, expressed even louder skepticism, saying: "Somebody makes a huge improvement in one year. It can be done, but it is rare. Not four-tenths [of a second] in the 100 meters. Bulls---. I don't think that can be done. So I don't believe.
"I am not saying he is on drugs. I am saying that I would bet a lot of money that he is. I can't say he is. I give you my opinion. With his eyes swollen and with him being giddy and sometimes aggressive, those are signs that are not good."
Bolt has never failed a drug test, though he can't escape the cloud of suspicion that hovers over anyone running fast these days. That cloud ramped up again last month when five members of Jamaica's sprint team, none of whom won medals at the Beijing Olympics, tested positive for a banned stimulant. Two of the athletes -- Yohan Blake and Marvin Anderson -- reportedly are trained by Bolt's coach, Glen Mills.
When the news broke about the positive tests in Jamaica, Bolt expressed dismay and tried to distance himself from the sprinters involved. And in response to Lewis' comments after that 2008 Olympics, he told Reuters: "To me, it doesn't really matter what [Lewis] said. When you run the 100 meters, that's what you get."
And that's what Bolt is up against if he is to put sound and fury back into the meaning of being the world's fastest man.
Part 5: Life in the freaky fast lane
There can be little disagreement that Bolt, like other iconic athletes such as Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps, is a genetic novelty, a freak of nature. That was in plain sight for all to see that steamy night last August inside Beijing's Bird's Nest as Bolt, with loping, waist-high strides, seemed to ease down the 100-meter straightaway on his way to becoming the world's fastest man. He was decelerating with 20 meters left and mugging for the cameras as he approached the line with his arms outstretched.
So moved was Michael Johnson, the track star (with Donovan Bailey) of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, that he called Bolt's 100-meter romp "the single most impressive athletic performance I've had the opportunity to witness." Johnson lost his 200-meter world record to Bolt a little later into the Beijing Games, and it's likely only a matter of time before the Jamaican moves his focus to a longer distance and breaks Johnson's 400-meter record.
Some might say Bolt isn't just a freak. He is the freak.
As a 15-year-old, those who were paying attention say, Bolt showed up at the World Youth Championships in Canada, gangly, with barely a shred of muscle, and perhaps even less technique. As he sprinted down the track, he veered side to side because his scrawny teenaged frame lacked the power and technique to stay straight. But he ran an international level time of 20.37 seconds over 200 meters. He ran 20.01 when he was 16. He ran 19.92 at 17.
For perspective, a 28-year-old Johnson set his 200-meter world record of 19.32 seconds at the 1996 Olympics. In Beijing, Bolt was only 21 and ran faster than that: 19.30.
"They switched him around last year, preparing him for the 100 meters first, which he had never run because all the coaches were afraid to put him in it," says Francis, one of those who has been watching Bolt's development for years. "If he got hurt in the 200, maybe they didn't want to try the 100. The year before, he'd run 10.02 the first time he'd even tried it. That would indicate a certain amount of promise, and then he opened up with 9.76. The guy is just unbelievable. Nobody has his potential."
Nor can any sprinter match his elastic physique.
Lewis and Asafa Powell, both former world-record holders, are tall by sprint standards at 6-2 or 6-3. But at 6-5, Bolt is a giant in the short dash. He covers 100 meters in 40 or 41 gargantuan strides, about five or six fewer than other world-class sprinters, without sacrificing explosion and quickness out of the starting blocks. This is Magic Johnson playing point guard.
"If you take our basketball players of today, maybe some of them could be of the same level like Bolt or Powell," says Charlie Greene, world-record holder in the late 1960s and a former West Point sprint coach. "They just prefer to make money in another activity. If you watch LeBron James come down on the fast break, he flies by everybody. How far do you think LeBron James could long jump? How far do you think Michael Jordan could have been able to long jump? Both of them are quick and fast. LeBron could probably throw the discus or the shot put out of sight, had he been training to do that. But in the United States. it is impossible to have athletes with that size run track."
Remi Korchemny, who trained as a physiologist in the former Soviet Union and coached several top runners, describes Bolt as the finest physical specimen the sprint world has ever seen. The only one close, in his opinion, was Lewis, who had a similarly long stride length and extraordinary explosiveness, which is what also made him one of the world's best long jumpers.
"Running consists of three components: stride length, air time and ground time," says Korchemny, 77, who pleaded guilty to providing prescription drugs to athletes in the BALCO scandal and was sentenced to probation. "In running, it mostly depends on explosiveness of athletes and how fast they can replace their limbs from one point to another and execute exactly force production, proper angle at proper reaction in proper time. So you have to work in sprints to make air time shorter, ground time shorter and stride longer. So it is everything that describes Bolt. And he does maximum velocity better than any great sprinter.
"If you see the race of Bolt during the Olympic Games, you can see he did a little bit longer acceleration than the other people. Here again, his maximum velocity is reached a little bit later than other people. The other people achieve maximum velocity [earlier] because their maximum velocity is less. His acceleration was longer. They finish acceleration, for example, at 40 meters. He finishes acceleration at 50 meters. And then he maintains his speed and then he slows down."
And yet, Bolt had the second slowest reaction time out of the blocks in the eight-man final in Beijing, and he eased up at the end of his world-record run. Railbirds and sports scientists have been debating ever since how much faster he might have run without showboating, beating his chest and beginning his celebration before crossing the line.
His coach, Mills, speculated he could have lowered the record to 9.52 seconds if he had kept his focus through the finish. Korchemny's guess isn't quite as over-the-top, suggesting Bolt cost himself about .07 seconds over the final 10 meters -- translating to a 9.62 clocking.
Now, the stage is set for another fast time this week in Berlin at the World Championships. It should produce the season's best heavyweight showdown: Bolt versus Gay. They have yet to face off this season, and both have run well on their separate paths to the Worlds. And unlike last year in China, when he didn't qualify for the final, Gay is healthy. He has both the talent and experience to test Bolt.
"Personally, I just want to run well and win," Bolt says. "If I run 10.05 to win, I am OK. If people want to judge that, fine with me. But I will be the champion then. As long as I win, I don't really care what time I run."
That sounds like the way Carl Lewis became a track and field legend. It isn't just the world's record that makes a legend. If Bolt follows the Lewis blueprint, he will continue to rise up on the sport's biggest stages, brushing off challenges like pieces of lint. That's how to build the Bolt brand.
That's how to re-build the brand of the world's fastest man.
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.