LONDON — The fastest man who ever lived, at least as far as we know, stands behind the starting blocks just as we are about to begin one of the most anticipated 100-meter races in Olympic history. Everyone in the stadium, and a good number of people all around the world, wonder the same thing: What is going on in the head of Usain Bolt?
He looks calm. That is the consensus. Calm. What does calm look like? His body seems loose, and he has a smile on his face, and he’s bouncing up and down, and, yes, perhaps that spells calm. Perhaps not. Later he will say no, he did not feel calm. Later he will say that he felt overwhelmed by nerves, chastened by the hugeness of the moment. He has come to London to become a legend — he has said this plainly and often — and suddenly it is the moment, and the moment is large.
Bolt will say that it is only when he hears the crowd cheer for him — yes, that crowd, listen to it, as loud as the stadium can sound, as loud as it was for even England’s greatest athletes — that he relaxes. He will credit the crowd for getting him ready.
But is this the story? Who knows with Bolt? He is serious one moment and a joker the next. He is thoughtful in one sentence, and absurd in the next. In his youth, he once hid in the back of a van when it was his time to race. And yet, he also worked so hard as a sprinter that in one five-month period he went from someone who never raced at 100 meters to the world record-holder.
Perhaps the crowd’s cheers and support relaxes him. Perhaps not. Either way, the race is about to start, and he mugs for the camera. He holds up upside-down bunny fingers, and he runs his fingers through his hair. He has convinced people all around the world that this is his personality — loose and silly and freewheeling. Is it? Or is he masking something? Or … what is going on in the head of Usain Bolt?
Four years ago, in Beijing, Bolt landed — like Neil Armstrong on the moon, like the Beatles in America, like the iPad in Apple Stores. He was some blend of man and miracle, half sprinter and half phenomenon. Nobody had ever seen anything like him. He ran much faster than anyone who ever lived, and he did so without any apparent effort. He set a world record on a diet of McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets and with one shoe untied. He was so far ahead as he approached the finish line in his gold-medal run that he basically stopped running hard before the end, as if even he did not want to know just how fast he could run.
And then, after that race, he struck poses. He danced. He clowned. Why not? He was the fastest man in the world, the fastest man in history, and he was just 22, and how could it get any better? The next four years lurched back and forth. He broke his own world record and became the first man to run 100 meters faster than 9.6 seconds. He also false-started out of a World Championship. He thrived as one of the world’s biggest stars, in and out of sports. And he watched as a 21-year-old countryman he helped raise, named Yohan Blake, supplanted him as Jamaica’s top sprinter.
Now, here it is, four years later, and Bolt is stepping into the starting blocks. It’s all different. Bolt has doubters now. Bolt has competitors now. Bolt ran a 9.87 in the semifinal, a blistering-fast time, just two-hundredths of a second off his absurd semifinal run in 2008. But it’s all different. Blake ran even faster in his semifinal. American Justin Gatlin ran even faster than that. Bolt is no longer in his own stratosphere. Or is he?
Bolt is different, too. He seems different. He is older now, wiser, perhaps, and less certain, perhaps. He will remember thinking as the race closes in, “Are you ready?” He will remember thinking, “I’m ready!” Anyway, that’s what he will tell us.
In the instant before the race begins, he crosses himself. The buzz of the crowd is just that — a buzz, an electric sound. Then, the public-address announcer asks for silence, and the buzz cuts off, like a radio being turned off. And then there’s the gun.
Bolt gets a sluggish start. He is used to this. The only question anyone has ever had about Bolt as a sprinter is built around his starts; he’s 6-foot-5, gangly, and it just takes a few hundredths of a second longer for him to unleash. Also, the false start at the 2011 World Championships might have spooked him a little. Anyway, this start is sluggish, but it’s not bad. At 25 meters, he is with the pack. At 50 meters he is beginning to pull ahead.
And that’s when everybody in the stadium knows, when everyone watching on television knows … Bolt will win. The mystery is solved. No sprinter on Earth, no sprinter who has ever lived, can run the last 50 meters like Usain Bolt. And so he begins to pull away. The sound in the stadium is now one huge scream of anticipation. The announcer had said before the start that there were more than two million ticket requests for this night and this event. These are the 80,000 who made it into the stadium, and they are determined to see history. They are seeing it.
Bolt looks around as he crosses 75 meters and realizes that he is in the lead, and no one ever catches him from behind. It is not going to be an easy win like in Beijing; these guys are running a lot faster than the other runners did in 2008. When they figure out the final times, they will find that this race features the fastest (Bolt), third-fastest (Blake), fourth-fastest (Gatlin) and fifth-fastest (Tyson Gay) times in Olympic history. The only top-five time not present was Bolt’s gold-medal run in Beijing.
Still, he will win, nobody can stop that now, and when he realizes this, he considers doing what he did in Beijing: to slow up, beat his chest and raise his hands even before the race was over. But he does not do it. Instead he runs hard to the line. He runs a 9.63. It’s not faster than his world record, but it is faster than his Olympic record. Bolt has now run the three fastest 100-meter times since they started using stopwatches.
Bolt promptly and (perhaps) perfunctorily does what he did in Beijing: He mugs, he poses, he dances. It doesn’t feel as spontaneous and fun as in ’08, but maybe that’s just my imagination. Maybe for Bolt it is more fun. He will say that this victory means even more than Beijing, because for this race he had to face down the pressure and the expectations and the doubts.
After a little while, he comes and talks to the press, and he sounds subdued. Reporters keep trying to wind him up, keep trying to get him to sound like the unaffected and fun-loving kid who blew the collective minds of the world in Beijing. Sometimes, he plays along. He admits that Blake’s pre-race act (which included him holding his fingers out like claws) was definitely more entertaining than his own.
But he also admits that he is thinking about bigger things. He is not joking when he says that he came here to become a legend. He appears to have it all planned out. He came to London to defend the 100- and 200-meter titles, something no one has ever done. He says that will make him a legend. And then, only then, will the job be done.
In those moments, and others, there’s a seriousness about him that seems different. But is it different? Who really knows? I think, at the heart of it, Usain Bolt likes being a mystery. I think he likes surprising people, likes having people wonder what it is that inspires him and worries him and motivates him and frightens him. I think he likes that electricity of a crowd that doesn’t quite know what is about to happen.
Although, as with everything about Bolt, I could be wrong.
“What did you eat today?” someone asks Bolt in a transparent effort to get him to talk about eating at McDonald’s like he did four years ago. Bolt admits that he did eat a chicken wrap at McDonald’s, and everyone in the room laughs.
“It had vegetables in it,” Bolt said. “Vegetables are healthy. Don’t judge me.”