LONDON -- It's the greatest show on Earth now, wherever he goes. There's nothing else like it in sports, the rumors, the entourage, the celebrating, the foolishness, the drama and, above all of it, the athletic brilliance. There's nothing and no one like the irresistible Usain Bolt, not now and maybe not ever. Bolt turned the London Olympics upside down Sunday night, sent otherwise reserved folks skipping deliriously from the Olympic Stadium into the streets. At the center of the greatest footrace the world has ever seen was Bolt, still the fastest man on Earth, who ran the 100-meter final in an Olympic-record 9.63.
Anyone could see it was the fastest race in history because that much is fact. Seven of the eight men ran the 100 in less than 10 seconds, which had never happened. Only Asafa Powell, who pulled up early with an injury, couldn't get under 10 seconds. But what made it not just the fastest race but the yummiest event of the Olympics was seeing the runners get down in the blocks next to each other, like gleaming Ferraris parked side by side before roaring off.
Everyone in the field was a headliner, someone you could envision wearing gold around his neck at the end of the night. All Bolt had to do to defend his Olympic title -- something only Carl Lewis has done -- was beat Tyson Gay, the second-fastest man ever; Trinidad's Richard Thompson, who won silver in the event four years ago in China; Jamaican teammate Powell, who has run more sub-10-second 100s than anybody; young stud American Ryan Bailey, who announced himself the day before during a 9.88 first-round heat; Jamaican teammate Yohan Blake, who just last month dusted Bolt in the 100 and 200 to ignite conversation of whether Bolt was injured, too full of himself or simply a one-timer. Get a load of this: the foursome of Bolt, Blake, Gay and Powell hold the top 19 (legal) times ever run in the event.
In less than 10 seconds, Bolt had once again separated himself from the crowd and said afterward he was halfway toward his primary goal. "If I win the 200 title, I'll consider myself a legend," Bolt said.
And who is fool enough to argue with that?
Not Justin Gatlin, who said, "I went out there to challenge a mountain," and had to settle for bronze, even though for a moment he was ahead of Bolt and Blake, who won silver.
The race had everything except a world record, and that's something Bolt simply doesn't seem interested in at the moment. He still didn't explode through the finish tape. He looked right, then left, to see who was on him. When the answer was "no one," Bolt pulled up for a step. One step, when you consider his stride at 6-foot-5, is the difference between 9.63 and 9.53, which would have been a world record.
What seems to please him more than a world record is the drama he can create. Bolt could have come out and pronounced himself fit before the Games began, but didn't. He probably could have beaten Blake if he'd wanted to, but why when you love the attention, perhaps even crave it? How many world-class athletes admit, as Bolt did Sunday night, to needing the crowd's adoration before a race to take away the jitters? Having heard the ovation, bigger than what any British sprinter received all night, Bolt said to himself, "Game time!"
He had plantains, hash browns and fruit for breakfast, then chicken and rice, pork, "a chicken wrap from McDonald's for lunch. It had some vegetables, so don't judge me," he said.
You can hang on every utterance with Bolt, even when he says he might take on the 400 after these Olympics, because Bolt's the biggest star in the Olympic universe. Michael Phelps is more decorated, but Phelps has no interest in entertaining, which is what stars do. Bolt doesn't have to try, he just does it. He is, as Richard Pryor would have said, "a natural born star." It requires nothing extra in his day. Bolt opens his mouth and a star comes out.
Gatlin said of Bolt, "He's a showman. Is it arrogant? Is it cocky? I don't think so. People pay good money to see it."
That's 80,000 people who paid to see it Sunday night, though the London organizers announced that 2 million people applied for tickets to this one session, the session they knew would feature Bolt. That kind of appeal would suggest Bolt is already a legend, but if the diva needed his ego checked, losing to Blake did it.
"When you get to the top, you lose sight of what's [important]," Bolt said. "Everybody's praising you, saying, 'You're great.' Losing to Blake it woke me up. It's like he knocked on my door, woke me up and said, 'It's the Olympics.'"
What helped as much as losing to Blake was the decision by him and his coaches to stop obsessing over his start, which has always been the weakness in his race (if you can have a "weakness" and be the fastest man in the world, twice and counting). So, they "decided to stop worrying about my start" and spend more time "reacting and executing" in the first 30 meters, then turning it on in the last 50 meters, where he's been the most amazing closer ever.
"That last 50 meters is the best part of my race. I just ran, pretty much." Bolt stopped to set up the line, like he can do from time to time, and added, "I almost did what I did in Beijing almost."
He was talking about, of course, slowing down to celebrate with 15 meters left, which probably cost him a time of 9.5 or better. Of course, why shatter a mark when you can knock pieces off it incrementally?
What a last laugh Bolt was able to have considering the swirl around him coming into the race, or as he described it, "A lot of people doubting me, saying I wasn't going to win, I didn't look good."
A warm ovation, which settled him down, and a decent enough start was about all Bolt needed, and he was right where he needed to be halfway through the race. His legs felt strong, he was confident. It wasn't a perfect race, like he ran in Beijing for 75 meters, but it was close enough. Damn close. Gatlin would pronounce Bolt "the Michael Phelps" of track and field, but no swimmer, not even Phelps, has created the kind of roar Bolt did Sunday night. Not every country plays field hockey. Not everyone plays table tennis, or fences. Not every country in the world engages in dressage or, for that matter, treats swimming as an athletic priority.
But here's what every civilization in the history of the world knows: how to run, how to put one foot in front of the other and move as fast as is humanly possible at the time. From sea to shining sea, people watched Bolt put one foot in front of the other faster than anyone else around him.
Perhaps even more amazing is that if Bolt hadn't run exactly as he did, if he had clowned a step earlier or stumbled ever-so-slightly on this particular night while being chased by this group of champions and former record-holders, Mr. Bolt would have been caught and passed.
But he wasn't, and the show moves on, all of us in total awe.