Shush, he told the crowd before the start. Calm down, he gestured. So serene was he, so unstressed by the whole thing, that after he had taken care of the necessary business he got down on the track and performed a few press-ups. In between times he ran 200m in 19.32 seconds: not a threat to his own world record, or even to his Olympic record, but certainly good enough to reassert his standing as the world’s fastest man.
Yohan Blake, his compatriot and training partner, had beaten Bolt in the national trials at both 100 and 200m, and he did his best once again to give his rival a contest, finishing strongly and closing what had been a big lead as they came off the bend to a margin of 0.4sec â€“ still an eternity â€“ behind the great man. Warren Weir completed a devastating clean sweep of the medals for Jamaica.
As the runners bent to their blocks there was the unusual sight of the United States outnumbered in an Olympic 200m final. Before Thursday night the US had provided 18 out of the 26 winners since the event was first held in 1900, but Wallace Spearmon was the only compatriot of Jesse Owens, Tommie Smith and Michael Johnson on view. He failed to challenge the trio from Kingston’s Racers Track Club, finishing fourth, ahead of Churandy Martina of the Netherlands and Christophe Lemaitre of France.
As if to celebrate the presence of Bolt and his fellow Jamaicans, London was blessed with glorious weather. Three more days of this and no one will go home from the 2012 Olympic Games with anything other than the memory of a perfect setting for the kind of athletic excellence enjoyed by another capacity crowd of 80,000.
The warmth arrived as if on cue to lubricate the limbs that broke world records while winning the 100m and 200m in Beijing, as well as the 4×100 relay. We knew less than a week ago that such an epochal feat would not be repeated in London.
On Sunday Bolt won the 100m, as expected, but his time of 9.63sec â€“ although 0.06sec faster than the mark he set four years ago in Beijing, and therefore a new Olympic record â€“ was still half a tenth of a second off the world mark that he had achieved at the world championships in Berlin in 2009.
To capture the double of the 100 and 200m again in London, he had repeatedly claimed since achieving the feat for the first time four years ago, would make him a legend. Which raises the question of in whose mind, exactly, those staggering performances in 2008 had not automatically elevated him to that status.
For those of his own generation, the Jamaican’s existence provides a special thrill: like growing up, in some ways, during the era of Muhammad Ali.
Even to those of us who lived through the eras of such dominant sprint champions as Bob Hayes, Valeri Borzov, Pietro Mennea and Carl Lewis, the 6ft 5in Jamaican represents a unique figure: a man who could break through generally accepted frontiers to set new standards of human achievement on the physical plane, taking rather less time than the scientists at Cern to redraw the map of mankind’s potential.
Bolt sprints like no champion ever has. By greeting his audience with a laugh and a little dancing-fingers mime show, he single-handedly revoked the licence of sprinters to throw gangsta shapes on the start line. Henceforward their threatening, glowering poses would provoke only derision. And he appeared to question the idea that there was more to the job, as long as you had completed a modicum of training, than just turning up and running.
He ran, and can still run, even though the record-breaking years may be in the past, with the ease and naturalness of a gifted child at a school sports day. There is a sense of glorious, uncaring freedom long since lost to most sports in the professionalised, corporatised era.
His world records in Beijing and Berlin were not the kind of incremental improvements usually seen on the track, the onward nudges that made Roger Bannister the first man to run the four-minute mile in Oxford in 1954 or Jim Hines the first man to go under 10 seconds for the 100 metres in Sacramento in 1968. Nor was there the kind of environmental assistance like that which enabled Bob Beamon to break the long-jump record by 55cm in the thin air of Mexico City, 2,240m above sea level, during the 1968 Games.
Bolt’s record-setting runs were quantum leaps, in the truest sense of the term: a shift from one state to another, without passing through the conventional intermediate stages. In the shorter event, a record that had been lowered over the years by the odd hundredth of a second here and there, taking 40 years to go from Jim Hines’s 9.94 to Asafa Powell’s 9.74, suddenly seemed to have missed several stages, going from Powell’s 9.74 to Bolt’s 9.58 â€“ set in Berlin, a year after the Olympics â€“ in under two years. In the 200m at the Beijing Games he took only two hundredths of a second off Michael Johnson’s record of 19.32, but that was a mark, set in 1996, that had been expected to endure a great deal longer. In Berlin he lowered it further, leaving it at 19.19.
Those record-shattering days may be gone, to judge by his performances over the past week on what has appeared to be a very fast track. But no one who was in the stadium will have gone home anything other than profoundly grateful to have witnessed at first hand the author of such historic deeds on the Olympic stage.
Bolt’s thunder is never completely stolen, but a large measure of it was appropriated by David Lekuta Rudisha, a 23-year-old from Kenya who knocked a tenth of a second off the 800m world record while winning a storming final. The remorselessly powerful acceleration of the tall 23-year-old in the back straight on the second circuit, taking him several metres clear of the field, was immediately reminiscent of Alberto Juantorena, the great Cuban who broke the record while winning the two-lap event in Montreal in 1976.
Fittingly, Juantorena was present to watch Rudisha’s run. A few minutes after the 800m runners had left the track, he fulfilled the duty of assisting at the medal ceremony for the men’s 110m hurdles. Now 61 and an official of the Cuban Olympic Committee, he would have been delighted to see his old event won in so distinguished and memorable a manner.
â€¢ This article was amended on 10 August 2012 because the original said Bolt’s 100m win last week was “half a second off the world mark that he had achieved at the world championships in Berlin in 2009” and “0.6sec faster than the mark he set four years ago in Beijing”.
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