He played possum. He created his own drama. He sold us on the theater of it all: that the brightest star of the Beijing Games was now vulnerable. Never mind fastest man ever. The defending Olympic champion and world-record holder suddenly wasn’t even the fastest man in the Caribbean.
Then it happened: an event that began at 9:50 p.m. London time ended at 9:50.9.63, with Bolt putting to rest once and for all who is the most incandescent performer of the Games.
“A lot of people doubted me,” Bolt said. “There was a lot of people saying I wasn’t going to win. There was a lot of talk. For me, it was an even greater feeling to come out, defend my title and show the world I’m still No. 1. I’m still the best.”
In 9.63 seconds, the time it took him to beat Gatlin and silver medalist Yohan Blake across the line, a star wasn’t born. He was back.
Bolt stumbled in his qualifying heat Saturday at Olympic Stadium. He won his semifinal heat easily, but his time put him in Lane 7 of the 100-meter final, beside Gatlin in Lane 6, Blake in 5 and Tyson Gay in 4. All three rivals crept into their starting blocks firmly believing they were less than 10 seconds from seizing the greatest title in track and field.
Bolt had back problems. He was disqualified at the start of one race. He didn’t seem to want it anymore after winning three Olympic gold medals in 2008.
And when it mattered, no one else had a chance.
“When I came out and they announced my name and the crowd gave that . . . everything just went away,” Bolt said. “It was just: ‘All right, this is it. Game time.’ I was ready after I got that ovation.”
Seven runners finished in less than 10 seconds Sunday. So many burners bursting from the blocks, flying down the track. Bolt made us think he would lose and all he did was win. Again. It’s as if the challenge of repeating got him ready for this night.
“It’s harder than anything else,” he said of repeating as Olympic champion. “I think when you get to the top, you there, you know it’s good and you’re working and you’re enjoying it. Sometimes you lose sight of what’s going on around you. But at the trials when Yohan Blake beat me twice, it woke me up. . . .
“So I just really refocused, got it together and came back ready.”
When the great race had been won, the charismatic, “Don’t worry, be happy” Jamaican returned. He pantomimed spinning records on a turntable. He ran halfway around the track and unleashed his patented thunderbolt, posing, preening. He laughed. He danced.
Bolt wasn’t gloating as much as he just seemed to derive great pleasure from pulling off the ruse; he had fooled us into thinking he could be beat. And with so much public doubt, it made his final 50-meter blur of brilliant green and yellow grander still.