LONDON — His greatest feat wasn’t surging past Justin Gatlin around 50 meters, nearing warp speed with that elongated stride in Lane 7, leaving the field for good. His greatest feat wasn’t defending the heavyweight championship of his sport, the title of World’s Fastest Human, in the swiftest foot race ever run.
No, Usain Bolt did one better: He made us think he would lose.
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.”
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.
He became the first man in Olympic history to win back-to-back 100-meter titles at an Olympics on the track — Carl Lewis was awarded his gold in 1988 only after Ben Johnson tested positive for steroids.
But Lewis was never in Bolt’s stratosphere when it came to personality, humor and openness. When so many of the world’s most famous athletes are constantly rolling up their tinted windows, Bolt rolls his down, tells the world to jump in the back to go along for the ride.
When grand athletic achievement matches aura, you get Ali. You get Jordan. You get the most memorable athletes of their times. And even in a sport that peaks in the public’s mind only once every four years, Bolt is that transcendent star.
In that way, you feel for Blake, Gatlin and Gay, who covered 100 meters in 9.80 and left without a medal. Gay sobbed and sobbed as he spoke with reporters afterward, saying he had given it everything but it wasn’t enough from missing out on a bronze by a hundredth of a second.
Like Joe Frazier and George Foreman during Ali’s reign or Karl Malone and Patrick Ewing during Jordan’s era, Gay, Gatlin and Blake would have been remembered as the greatest champions of their time if they had just been born 10 years earlier or later.
But this is Bolt’s time, his world — and they’re just getting passed in it.
“How much do you want to be a legend?” he was asked.
“That’s my ultimate goal. That’s it for me. If I become a legend, that’s it for me. Then I got to make a new one.”
In the time it takes to read this paragraph, Bolt shot out of a starting block and took these Olympic Games by storm again. The biggest star of the Olympics is back.
Gatlin was asked if he had the lead.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Did you feel Bolt to your right?” he was asked.
“I mean, he’s 6-5 — you can’t miss him. When his legs lift, you feel it, you see it.”
Later, Gatlin said, “Bolt’s a very fast guy. He’s a true competitor; he’s a showman. . . . I’m just so glad to be a part of history.”
Bolt’s childhood friends were waiting for him afterward, smiling proudly. They knew: He was never going to lose. It was just part of the show.
“Come on, mon,” said Nugent Walker, who has known Bolt since he was 6 years old.. “There is only one king. There was always only one king.”
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.