Easy does it: Usain Bolt qualifies comfortably but his time is eclipsed by Americans Photo: ACTION IMAGES
By Ian Chadband, Olympic Stadium
Justin Gatlin reckoned they were like spectators goggling at a one-man show.
Then there was Ryan Bailey, who was just being hailed for running the fastest 100 metres ever in the first round of an Olympic Games.
Yet all this young American wanted to do was find the nearest television to watch you know who.
And when everyone had finished ogling and analysing Usain Bolt, back defending his sprint crown here in the Olympic Stadium with the most languid preliminary canter, no one was any the wiser as to whether the fastest man on earth is truly back to his extraterrestrial finest.
The track was amazingly slick and some of the sprinting was even slicker. The fast show skirmishing produced delicious stories, from a wide-eyed 18-year-old absolute beginner, Adam Gemili, to an even wider-eyed, born-again veteran, Dwain Chambers, both ensuring Britain will have a fevered interest in tonight’s semis.
Tyson Gay looked excellent, Justin Gatlin even better, and world champion Yohan Blake, aka “The Beast”, snarled his way through the bowels of the stadium not really wanting to talk to anyone after he had won effortlessly. Yet it was still all about Bolt.
Everything revolves around planet Bolt.
As he stripped off his hooded black tracksuit and his bobble hat and London could see the phenomenon materialising there on the start line in the swirly wind, a roar went up to match the acclaim in which Jessica Ennis had been bathing in for a day and a half. Let the Games commence!
Yet what sort of show was he going to put on? We got a little imaginary hair combing and a finger pointed down the track as if to remind everyone who was number one. Yet the race itself? It offered no real clues to his true form.
He did not get away particularly well, admitting afterwards to have suffered a stumble which, frankly, looked invisible to the rest of us, and he took some time to ease into his monster stride.
When he did, he decided simply to dawdle and as he crossed the line, Dasaolu, qualifying third in the adjacent lane, appeared to try to touch hands as they slowed.
It was, the Briton presumably felt, the closest he was ever going to get. The time was 10.09 sec, the slowest of all seven heats, which may or may not have been the grandest of illusions.
Bolt and coach Glen Mills had decided against bothering to do any more work on his ordinary starts, he said, and were just concentrating on that final explosive 50 m.
“But my legs are great. My training has been great. I’m feeling better,” he warned.
Asked if, in his current form following recent niggles with his back and hamstring, he could successfully defend his crown, he said with a smile: “We’ll see”. We will have to because he was like a poker player here.
Gatlin tried to explain how the opposition felt about the great man.
“He’s the equivalent of the guy walking on the moon for the first time. He’s done something no one has ever done before. You’re going to be in awe sometimes,” the American said.
Presumably that is why Gatlin’s compatriot Bailey was so desperate to see him run on TV even after he had just stretched out to a brilliant 9.88 sec run.
The 23 year-old was the surprise packet in the mix with his terrific effort.
Yet the biggest dangers to Bolt, all heat winners here, have been circling ominously for this denouement all summer: Gay (10.08 sec into a significant headwind), Blake (a superbly controlled 10.00 sec) and Gatlin, whose 9.97 sec must have made organisers fidget nervously about the prospect of a two-time doping offender striking gold tonight.
Chambers, also back in the fold after his lifetime Olympic ban was overturned, sliced nearly a quarter of a second off his best time this summer, a superb 10.02 sec win which would have been sub-10sec if he had not eased down over the last few strides.
Chambers, who of course admitted to his doping guilt – which is something Gatlin has never done – reckoned he felt inspired by all the love being showered by an 80,000 crowd.
“The welcome was 'wow, what’s that?’ It’s what gave me that extra bit,” the 34 year-old beamed. His reward? To run in the adjacent lane to Bolt in Sunday’s semi.
Gemili, who clocked 10.11 sec as runner-up behind Jamaica’s former world record holder Asafa Powell, will face Blake and Gay tonight. No wonder the kid who only swapped football for athletics in January feels as if he is in dreamland.
“That crowd, I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life,” the world junior champion said. “I do think the final is a possibility if I execute my race well. No feeling would ever match it – and I would never forget it.”
Football cannot have him back. The boy is UK athletics’ treasure now.