LONDON (AP) — It took him longer to get down on both knees and kiss the track than it did to glide over the most important 100 meters of it.
Yet it’s everyone else with a stake in this overhyped and increasingly over-budget extravaganza — the International Olympic Committee, the London organizers, NBC, his sport and even his fellow competitors — who should be kissing the ground Usain Bolt walks on.
He saved their games.
In what was billed as the greatest 100 meter race ever, the lanky Jamaican did not disappoint. He pulled away from countryman and training partner Yohan Blake and American Justin Gatlin with a final few powerful strides, crossing the finish line as that rare sprint champion who didn’t need — let alone bother — to look at the scoreboard for confirmation of his win.
But, oh, what a number glistened there: 9.63 seconds — an Olympic record.
Asked what the win meant, Bolt wasn’t about to feign modesty. He won all three events he entered in Beijing four years ago — the 100, 200 and 4x100 relay — in world-record times.
“It means,” he responded coolly, “I’m one step closer to becoming a legend.”
“I’ve said it over the years that when it comes to the championships, this is what I do,” he added. “It’s all about business for me.”
So much so that when a bottle flew out of the stands and landed a few lanes over, behind Blake just before the start of the race, neither man even took notice.
“I came out there with one goal — get off to a good start and execute,” Bolt said. “Because the last 50 meters is where I shine.”
Bolt knew going in that he wasn’t running against just the opponents in this race. Nor even to beat arguably the best field ever assembled for an Olympic finale. Nor to escape the long shadow of Carl Lewis, considered by many the greatest Olympian ever and, until Sunday night, the only man to successfully defend his 100-meter Olympic title.
No, Bolt had to accomplish these things — and do them with enough substance and style to fill up the seats in Olympic Stadium and lure people back in front of their TV sets for another week. For all the interesting bits and pieces the events of last week generated, the truth is these games have been slow to gather momentum, sleepy one moment and electrifying the next. That’s no coincidence.
Just as in Beijing, U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps was charged with the burden of entertaining the world during the first week and while he started slow, finishing fourth in his opening race, he finished fast. Had Bolt stumbled similarly after grabbing the baton, it’s anybody’s guess how steeply the nightly audience numbers would have fallen off.
NBC claims an average of 34 million viewers each night, its best ratings since the 1996 Atlanta Games and highest for any non-U.S. Summer Olympics since the 1976 games in Montreal. Sure, the venues have been stars in their own right. It’s cool to watch beach volleyball being played in what’s normally the queen’s private gardens, or see archers fling arrows across the most hallowed pitch in cricket at Lord’s.
But the stars on the track move the meter the most, and even the latest edition of the U.S. Dream Team has no illusion whose turf its occupying during the Olympics.
Kobe Bryant & Co. caused a brief stir when they took their place alongside the 80,000 or so others packed into Olympic Stadium, but that was all. And when LeBron James was asked whether he’d gotten used to basketball for once not being the biggest game in town, he didn’t have to think long or hard.
“Well, it’s not. This is,” James said, looking around at the full house. “This, and swimming. The whole world is going to watch this tonight. This is the biggest event of them all, right here.”
And so it was, that too-good-to-be-true moment of sporting serendipity that turns out to be even better than billed. Impassive as ever, Bolt said no one should have been surprised.
“This is what I do,” he said. “I enjoy putting on a show.”
Good thing, too, since the 100 was just Bolt’s opening act. The finals for his favorite race, the 200, is Thursday night and the 4x100 is the last event on the track come Saturday night. Bolt will not only have to keep delivering results, he’ll have to find a way to entertain everybody in between. Judging by the way he threw the gauntlet at Blake, an earnest sort who’s become Bolt’s understudy, that won’t be a problem.
“I’m not going to give this one to you,” Bolt called after the kid, who was already out of sight. “Maybe next year, or the year after that. But right now I need this to become a legend.
“That’s my main event. That’s what I do,” he said finally. “I’m not going to let myself down.”
Nor, it appears, anyone else in this wide Olympic world.