The world gathered again to witness Bolt on Sunday night in London's Olympic Stadium. Many had surely not seen him since Beijing, as track and field lives on the distant margins of mainstream sport and Bolt is its only true star. In a superficial sense, he did not leave them wanting, winning the 100-meter gold medal in 9.63 seconds, an Olympic record and the second-fastest time in history (behind only his world record of 9.58 from Berlin) and .06 faster than he ran in Beijing. But this was not a virtuoso encore, this was a race, and it had begun more than two years earlier.
In the wake of Beijing and Berlin, Bolt, 25, had become an international athletic and cultural celebrity, compensated at more than $10 million a year by his shoe and apparel company, Puma, and recognizable on most streets in most cities. Yet in the summer of 2010, a back injury forced him to shut down his season in July. A year later he returned, but false-started out of the 100 meters at the world championships in Daergu, South Korea. And this year, he ran fast in late May and early June, only to again suffer back problems that he carried onto the track at the Jamaican Olympic Trials in late June, where he looked sloppy and desperate, and was beaten twice by countryman and training partner Yohan Blake, 22. The scent of vulnerability trailed him into London.
"A lot of people doubted me,'' said Bolt after his victory on Sunday night. "A lot of people said I wasn't going to win. I wanted to show the world that I'm still No. 1, that I'm still the best. I show up on the day.''
He walked onto the track at 9:41 Sunday night, energizing a stadium that had struggled to rise again to the manic level of the previous night, when Great Britain won three gold medals in 46 minutes. Bolt gave them the juice they needed to rise again. He had been invisible since Kingston, 39 days without competition. Only when he walked home to a semifinal victory in 9.87 seconds did he give the slightest hint that the Old Bolt might be back. (But Justin Gatlin of the U.S., the 2004 Pre-Bolt gold medalist from Athens, ran 9.82 with only slightly more effort, and Blake was also impressive.)
In fact, Bolt had been searching for that cat since Kingston. The official reason given for Bolt's struggles there was "tight hamstrings,'' but later Bolt would admit that it was his back, and hence he flew from Kingston to Munich to get treatment from Dr. Hans Muller-Wohlfahrt. Then he went to Birmingham for a Jamaican sprint training camp. "After the Trials, I sat down with my coach [Glen Mills],'' said Bolt. "He said 'I know where you are. I know where you're going to be. You're going to be OK.' I worked really hard for, basically, the last five weeks.''
On the starting line for the final, Bolt delivered some of his customary routing: Primping his eyebrows as if for a photo shoot, shssss-ing the crowd just before getting into the blocks. He pointedly did not do the To Di World post that he first broke out in Beijing and which has become his most recognizable move. He folded into Lane 7, with reliably fast-starting Gatlin to his left in Lane 6 and Blake two lanes further away in Lane 4. Outside him was unpredictable and dangerous American Ryan Bailey.
Neither Bolt (.165 seconds), Blake (.179) nor Gatlin (.178) registered great reaction times (all in the bottom half of the field). But 15 meters out of the blocks, into what sprinters call their "drive phase,'' Gatlin was clearly in the lead, with Blake and Bolt both trailing. But at 40 meters, Bolt began gaining quickly on Gatlin. "He's 6-5, you can't miss him,'' said Gatlin. "He's right there. When his legs lift, you see it, you feel it.''
Blake gained on Gatlin's left and surged into second place but Bolt had opened a meter of space. Blake couldn't make up ground. "I think I started to shuffle a little bit,'' said Blake, illustrating by rocking forward from his hips. "Because I wanted to reach the line fast. I think Usain won it in the last part. Tonight he just got the better of me. It was fun, anyway. Me and Bolt are still friends.''
Once on the lead in the race, Bolt's dominance looked familiar. "Nobody can catch me from behind,'' he told Sports Illustrated last September. Yet it was not the insouciant Bolt from Beijing. This Bolt clawed at the night air with both arms, gritted his teeth, blew through ballooned cheeks and even looked to the left, as if searching for Blake. And is this not what fans love in their athletes, as much as dominance, the manifestly visible effort that leads to victory? The ability to rise from setbacks and deliver in the biggest moments? Bolt hit the line and became the first man in history to cross the line first in two (or consecutive) 100-meter races (Carl Lewis crossed the line first in 1984, and was elevated to first in 1988, when Ben Johnson of Canada was disqualified for a positive drug test). It will soon be difficult to argue that Bolt is not the greatest sprinter in history.
But where Bolt won in Beijing by .20 seconds over Richard Thompson of Trinidad and Tobago, this time his margin was just .12 over Blake, who matched his personal best of 9.75 seconds. Gatlin completed a long climb from a four-year doping suspension from 2006-'10) and took the bronze in 9.79 seconds. It was the first time in history that three men had run under 9.80 seconds in the same 100-meter race and, behind that, the first time ever that seven men had broken 10 seconds.
"He's an unbelievable sprinter,'' said Thompson, who finished seventh in the race after taking that silver in Beijing. "The entire world thinks he's unbeatable and right now he is. He almost broke that world record again tonight, so I would say there's a high probability that he's going to break it again at some point. Maybe this year.''
Gatlin said, "He's the Michael Phelps of our sport, you know what I mean? He's a showman. People come out and pay their money to watch a good race.'' (Two million people tried to buy tickets for Sunday night's card in the stadium, 80,000 were ultimately sold.)
Behind Gatlin in the race was Tyson Gay of the U.S., beaten out of the bronze medal by .01 seconds. No sprinter was been more profoundly affected by Bolt's sudden rise than Gay, who was the world 100- and 200-meter champion in 2007, only to be swept away since by Bolt. Remarkably, Gay nearly won an Olympic medal one year after hip surgery, and on Sunday, sobbed heavily in the media zone after the race. "I gave it my best, ain't nothing else I could do,'' said Gay. "I feel like I let a lot of people down. I don't have excuses, man. I gave it my all.''
In celebration, Bolt brought the Full Usain, for a crowd that included Team USA basketball players Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and LeBron James, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry (nobody wants to miss Bolt). He dusted off To Di World. He posed with life-sized stuffed mascots. He somersaulted in front of the homestretch stands. "I like to show my joy to the crowd," Bolt said. And in this way his races are never over at the finish line, they rumble on around the track, a rolling party into the evening.
Now, as in Beijing, attention turns to Bolt's further pursuits. He will be facing Blake Thursday night in the 200-meter final and that race looms as intriguing. In Beijing, Bolt ran 19.30 seconds for the gold, .02 faster than Michael Johnson's seemingly unassailable world record from 1996. A year later in Berlin, he took the mark down to 19.19 seconds and seemed untouchable in the event. But last September in Brussels, Blake ran a stunning 19.26 seconds and, of course, beat Bolt in Kingston in the Jamaican Trials.
Now late on a summer night, Bolt found himself in a wild interview not 10 steps from Blake and spoke in Blake's direction. "I told Yohan Blake that the 200 meters will be different because that's my pet race,'' said Bolt, who was a world junior champion in the 200 at age 17. "I'm not going to let him beat me again.'' Beyond that, there is the 4x100-meter relay and whispers that Bolt might even run the 4x400, giving him a chance to win four gold medals in a single Games. Like Lewis. Like Jesse Owens.
"One step closer,'' said Bolt, "to being a legend.'' And of course he is wrong about that. He is already there, larger than life and larger than his sport.