No one asked Maurice Greene about laser removal to take off the body art.

No. The man who dubbed himself the "greatest of all time" and had the acronym "G.O.A.T." tattooed onto his right bicep was almost boasting about his bronze medal.

The silver medalist, Francis Obikwelu of Portugal? "How can I not be happy? I ran the fastest I ever run before."

Justin Gatlin, the unassuming young man who lunged past the finish line .01 of a second faster than Obikwelu and .02 faster than Greene in the fastest 100 meters ever run at the Olympic Games, had his own take.

"I crossed the line and I was just shocked I made history," Gatlin said on what amounted to the heavyweight championship of track and field. "This is all I've ever dreamed of."

Never at an Olympics had more than four men run under 10 seconds flat over 100 meters. Never at the Games had so many burners burst from the blocks, heads down, hearts pulsating, and flown across the finish line so swiftly.

Shawn Crawford, Gatlin's training partner, finished in 9.89 seconds -- and didn't win a medal. Asafa Powell, the Jamaican sprinter, took fifth in 9.94 seconds.

John Smith, Greene's coach, was asked if it was the best 100 of all time.

"You run a 9.86 and you don't win?" he said of Obikwelu. "You run 9.89 and finish fourth? You run 10 flat and don't get on the stand?"

But what about Tokyo in 1964, when the great Bob Hayes won? "Naw, that's better than Tokyo. Hayes ran away with that."

The level of anticipation prior to the race at the Olympic Stadium on Sunday night bordered on maniacal. The lead-up indeed had the feel of a heavyweight fight, due to the fact that race organizers summoned the sprinters out from the call room a good 15 minutes prior to the event.

The rhythmic sound of the Sirtaki, the Greek folk classic made famous in the final scene of "Zorba the Greek," blared over the sound system. It built to a crescendo every few seconds as the crowd clapped along. The world's fastest men ate it up and went with the moment.

You had Greene, the pose-and-preen king, yukking it up for the cameras. Gatlin and Crawford, the training partners, goofed on each other and then, in a moment of realization that they were indeed about to challenge for the title of world's fastest human, they clasped hands, bumped chests and embraced tightly.

The only thing that disturbed Gatlin all night was a man posing as an international track federation official, who proceeded to get in his face and snap pictures of his tattoos in the call room. It broke his concentration and nearly led to an altercation.

"I don't know who that guy was, but I should thank him now," Gatlin said. "Because I was angry when I got out to the track."

Moments later, eight runners took off in a blur of spandex and fluorescent colors. Imagine an event time starting at 11:10 p.m. and being over before 11:10:10 p.m.

They literally flew from the blocks, and the swiftest of them all -- the kid who would make the fleet Leonidas of Rhodes proud -- was Gatlin.

Second at the U.S. Olympic trials in Sacramento last month because he leaned too close to the line, he brought a good tale to Athens.

Gatlin was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder in fourth grade. He began taking medication to cope with the affliction. In 2001, the medication came up as an amphetamine in a drug test and led to a two-year suspension. He received early reinstatement when it was learned the drug was to treat his condition. He weaned himself off it and set himself on an Olympic course.

Two nights into the Athens track competition, the American contingent needed a story like Gatlin's.

Alan Webb, the next Great Mile Hope, ran one of the strategically poorest races of his young life Friday night, failing to qualify in the 1,500 meters.

Stacy Dragila, the reigning Olympic pole vault champion, did not reach her qualification standards, either.

And then Gail Devers, the grande dame of American track at 37, fell again -- 12 years after she slammed into the last hurdle while leading the 1992 Olympic 110-meter hurdle final. She crawled to the finish line and finished fifth that night. On Sunday night, an injury suffered in training forced her to pull up before the first hurdle of a qualifying heat. She slid under it, in agonizing pain.

Devers will always have two gold medals from the 100 meters in Barcelona and Atlanta for keepsake, but she will also go down as one of the most luckless women in American track since Mary Decker Slaney.

So it was up to Gatlin, a 22-year-old flyer from Pensacola, Fla., to provide a good back story.

When Gatlin was 4 years old, hurdling fire hydrants on Quentin Street in Brooklyn, N.Y., his mother kept telling him, "You better watch out, the ground is going to catch you."

But the little boy thought he could fly, so he paid his mother no mind. He kept running and jumping. By the time the family moved to Florida when he was about 7, he raced children on bicycles, too. "He'd be on foot and still beat 'em," Jeanette Gatlin said, sitting beside her husband, Willie.

The parents of the Olympics' fastest human were holding their own news conference on Sunday night in the bowels of the stadium.

They gave you a quick biographical stretch. Justin, it turned out, played saxophone until he got braces at 16. He still plays piano, and an entire room of the family home is dedicated to his graphic art.

You hear details about Olympic champions such as Gatlin daily at the Games. They come at you in waves, almost as fast as 100-meter finalists. And while you move onto the next event before you know it, they are all genuine and original, part of a 17-day sprint.

Part of the collage also includes the stain of steroid use in this tainted sport. It figured that a journalist would ask Gatlin, given the rampant allegations surrounding U.S. track and field athletes, how people could believe he was clean. He said emphatically that he was clean.

On his golden night, no one asked about his coach Trevor Graham's connection to the BALCO scandal, or brought up that Graham used to coach Tim Montgomery, the current world record holder who is under investigation and awaits possible banishment from the sport by its governing body.

No. We all want to believe little boys who hurdle Brooklyn fire hydrants grow up to be Olympic champions someday. Until we hear different, we all want to believe a man could run that fast.

Maurice Greene blazed over 100 meters in 9.87 seconds, but it was good enough for only the bronze.