RIO DE JANEIRO — There he was, loping through the shadowy tunnel at Olympic Stadium. In the distance, out on the track, lay the red starting blocks for the 100-meter dash. The tall, lanky runner from Jamaica kept moving toward those blocks in the floodlights, his dark eyes glimmering with intensity.
Start time is four minutes away.
The beauty of the 100-meter dash is its basicness: Run from point A to point B as fast as you can. It's one of the first athletic endeavors children take up in the yard, racing from maple tree to mailbox. It doesn't require a ball or a glove or even shoes; it's just human against human—the purest distillation of sport.
The winner of the Olympic 100 meters also is conferred an unofficial title: World's Fastest Man. This has perks. For the last eight years, the current titleholder has raked in millions in endorsements from sponsors such as Puma and lit a blue streak across the globe collecting six-figure appearance fees at different track meets.
This was why everyone in the stadium was riveted to the tall, lanky runner from Jamaica as he stretched on the track, the man who since 2007 had lost only one major-championship final—on a disqualification for a false start.
Start time is three minutes away.
Usain Bolt is the reigning emperor of the 100, the rare 6'5" man who has explosive burst. He won gold in both the 100 and 200 in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he first flashed his "To Di World" pose, which looked like a lightning bolt, but in fact was an image he had seen in a Jamaican tourist flier. Overnight, he became a world-famous figure.
Four years later at the London Games, Bolt seized another gold in the 100, breaking an Olympic record with a time of 9.63 seconds. He also won the 200 in London, becoming the first athlete to capture golds in both 100 and 200 in consecutive Olympics. This prompted Bolt to proclaim he was "the greatest athlete to live." No one snickered.
But Bolt is 29 now and his long, lean body has been breaking down. He suffered a mild left hamstring tear at a meet in the Caymans in May. He aggravated the injury at the Jamaican Olympic trials in July in a preliminary heat in the 100. He sat out the final, but the Jamaican Olympic Committee granted Bolt a medical exemption and placed him on the team.
Yet Bolt looked perfectly healthy in his semifinal race on Sunday night. Once the starting gun sounded, it was like he was the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars making the jump to hyperspace. It took about two seconds—the Millennium Falcon always sputtered for a moment before zooming away—but then Bolt shotgunned to the lead, pumping his legs at full power for four or five seconds. Then he shifted down into third gear for the final 30 meters, looking side to side and flashing a smile that said, Is that all you guys got?
It typically takes Bolt 41 strides to complete 100 meters—most elite sprinters take 44 or 45—and he crossed the finish line for the semi in a personal season-best time of 9.86 seconds. But he could have run faster if he had wanted to. There was so much more speed out there.
Every entertainer understands the importance of leaving the crowd pining for more. And Bolt is as much showman as he is sprinter.
Start time is two minutes away.
Bolt blasts out of the starting block in Lane 6, practicing. He runs at half-speed for 50 meters. Returning down the track, he pumps his fists to the crowd. They respond by chanting, "Bolt—Bolt—Bolt—Bolt..."
It's like Ali in Zaire; the fans shouting "A-li, bo-ma-ye...A-li, bo-ma-ye."
Bolt returns to the blocks, nodding his head, a sprinter incapable of concealing his confidence.
Start time is 30 seconds away.
Olympic Stadium falls silent. It is the best silence in sports, thick with possibility and pressure.
For the first time of the night, fans can hear the blades of a helicopter hovering above.
The sprinters crouch into position. All the fans in the stadium—and over 2,000 reporters—have now risen to their feet.
The starter's gun sounds.
Bolt is slow off the blocks. After 20 meters, he's behind Justin Gatlin of the United States—his longtime rival. A Jamaican reporter screams, "No!"
The jump to hyper-speed finally kicks in at 50 meters. He passes Gatlin for the lead at 70 meters. The crowd is in full-throat, as if in rapture. Bolt is again casting his spell.
Bolt blurs across the finish line at 9.81 to win his third straight Olympic gold in the 100. Gatlin, only a step behind Bolt, crosses the line at 9.89 for the silver.
Bolt slows to a jog and raises his arms to the heavens. The fans continue to cheer. Bolt knows it and so does everyone else at Olympic Stadium: There will never be another four minutes quite like this.