Usain Bolt is the only human being who can make the entire Olympics stop for 10 seconds.
Correction. Sunday night, he made the Games stop for exactly 9.81 seconds.
“It was brilliant,” Bolt analyzed after he had won the 100-meter dash for the third consecutive time at three consecutive Olympics.
No one ever said Bolt was the most modest man on earth. Just the fastest man on earth.
Every four years, you forget how the 100 meters can grab people’s eyeballs and captivate an entire Olympic city and nation.
It never fails. Dozens of other sports events are taking place across the 16 days of competition. But when the starting gun goes off in the men’s 100, the lure of watching human beings move their legs so swiftly — Bolt travels 23 miles per hour at top speed, much faster than Rio rush-hour traffic — is irresistible.
Across the city Sunday, people paused to click on their television sets or crowded around them in sidewalk cafes. Some were even lucky, they might even have reserved a seat for the show at Estadio Olimpico, the track and field venue for these games.The show and buildup to this 100 was as compelling as ever. Bolt was favored, of course, but he was nursing an alleged iffy hamstring that had caused him to miss a race earlier this summer. His chief competitor, 2004 Olympic champion Justin Gatlin of the USA, had promised to make a real run at gold. Bolt was amused by this promise.
“The more you talk, the more I will want to beat you,” Bolt said last week, then said of his opponents: “They will feel my full wrath as always.”
The full house in the Estadio was eager to see wrath. The paying customers began chanting “Bolt! Bolt! Bolt!” through the early evening qualifying races. The volume only turned up as the final approached at 10:25 p.m. local time.
Gatlin, on the other hand, was cast as the villain in the drama. His two drug suspensions since 2001, the first for amphetamines and the second for testosterone, have made people skeptical as he ramped up for the Olympics at age 34 with some of his best times ever.
As a consequence, Gatlin’s face was not popular whenever it was flashed on the giant stadium television screen.
“Boooooooo!” the audience commented upon seeing that face, as well as during Gatlin’s race introduction.
“Bolt! Bolt! Bolt!” continued other loud comments whenever the boos died down.
For a while, you wondered if the crowd would even grow quiet enough for the race to start, when silence is needed for the starting gun. But the silence finally did come. The gun popped.
And my goodness, Gatlin beat Bolt out of the blocks significantly. Bolt is a notoriously slow starter. Over the first 50 meters, as Gatlin took the lead, an upset seemed a possibility.
Remember, we said a possibility.
Bolt soon shifted his 6-foot-5 frame into gear. His legs began taking longer strides. It was over. He passed Gatlin at about the 60-meter mark and never looked back — although Bolt checked the scoreboard to see how far ahead he was and eased up in the final 10 meters. At age 29, he must race again in the 200 meters later this week as well as in a relay.
“There will always be doubters,” Bolt said of those who had questioned the hamstring issue, “but I’m in better shape than last season.”
Bolt’s time did not match the Olympic record he set in London four years ago (9.63 seconds) or threaten his own world record (9.58), but it was sufficient to defeat Gatlin (9.89) comfortably and also subdue bronze medalist Andre De Grasse (9.91) of Canada.
“He’s the man,” De Grasse said of Bolt afterward. “He’s phenomenal. I’m waiting for my time.”
Bolt celebrated the victory by taking a strolling victory lap with a large stuffed Olympic mascot, then unveiled his signature “lightning bolt” gesture. He also posed for smartphone selfies with members of the crowd. When Bolt won his first Olympic gold in 2008 at Beijing, selfies barely existed. That’s how long he has ruled the sprinting planet.
Gatlin, for his part, grabbed an American flag and draped it over his shoulders in celebration of his silver medal. He was seemingly happy about the outcome. Or probably just resigned to it.
And what of those boos?
“You hear everything,” Gatlin said, “but you have to tune that kind of stuff out. They are excited. I understand that. There are a lot of Usain Bolt fans, a lot of Jamaican fans. But they don’t know me. I have worked very hard. You can’t focus on the boos. Today, when I looked into the stands, I saw the most American flags at any championship. To have the respect of my competitors is really what I care about.”
And that would include Bolt?
“I have the utmost respect for Usain off the track,” Gatlin said. “He is a fun, cool guy. There is no rivalry or bad blood between us. He’s pushed me to become the athlete I am today. When it comes down to it, I have given him his closest races all his career.”
Bolt said he was surprised to hear the boos for Gatlin, as well, and professed his own mutual respect. But this is Bolt, after all. He is thinking ahead to winning the 200 and that relay, which would cement his status as the greatest Olympic sprinter ever.
“Somebody said I can become immortal,” Bolt said. “Two more medals to go and I can sign off: immortal.”
Above him in the stadium seats, people were still chanting: “Bolt! Bolt! Bolt!” Immortality won’t be a problem.