LONDON — At my first Olympics, 1996 in Atlanta, I was sitting in a French restaurant downtown when all of a sudden there was a bit of a stir. There was some applause. Some people were standing up. I turned around, and — this was really cool — there was Stevie Wonder. Yes, that was really cool.
Not too long after, there was another stir. This one was much louder. The applause was deafening. Everyone stood and cheered like mad. I turned again — who could be this much bigger a star than Stevie Wonder? — and I saw a man I did not recognize at all. But the applause would not stop, and the standing ovation kept going, and it was quite the scene.
It turned out that man was Jean Galfione. Who? He was a French pole-vaulter who had shocked everyone and won Olympic gold. And, on that day in 1996, even if it happened to be at a French restaurant in the American South, he was as big a hero as imaginable.
This gets to a point I’ve written about more than once at these Games, how we are all watching our own Olympics. It remains true — I think all over the world — that we’re watching our country’s heroes. We’re watching the stars of our favorite sports. In Kenya, the Olympics are built around distance running; and in Hungary, it is canoeing and field sports; and in Cuba, it is boxing. In the United States, gymnast Gabby Douglas is a huge star; and in Great Britain, it’s heptathlon gold-medalist Jessica Ennis; and in Germany, the rage is discus winner Robert Harting, who celebrated by ripping off his shirt and then running and jumping over hurdles.
We all seem to watch our own Olympics … with one notable exception.
Everyone watches Usain Bolt.
Why Bolt? What is it about him that captures our imagination? Oh, he’s great, of course. He’s beyond great. On Thursday night, he finished off one of the greatest acts in the history of sports. He won the 200 meters in 19.32, making him the first man in Olympic history to repeat as the winner in both the 100 and 200.
He came to London with the spoken goal of becoming a legend. He became a legend. But it is more than that. It has to be more than that. There are many legends here.
Earlier on Thursday night — the very same night — Kenya’s David Rudisha ran what might be the most amazing race, start to finish, that I have ever seen. Rudisha is the best 800-meter runner in the world, and nobody is second. He was the surest thing at these Olympics — surer even than Bolt. British bookmakers made Rudisha a 1-to-11 favorite, meaning that if you bet $11 on him, and he won, you got $12 back.
So, he was essentially running a solo race. But he decided that he wanted to do something magical, something that no one would ever forget. And so, when the race started, he simply took off. He raced to the front — he likes to run from the front — and he just kept going all out, as fast as he could go, as fast as any 800-meter runner could go. His pace was so impossibly fast that he single-handedly pulled the other seven runners to their own individual brilliance. In that way, it was the most unselfish race I ever saw, too. Six of the seven ran the fastest times of their entire lives, and the seventh ran the fastest he’s run all year. Put it this way: Great Britain’s Andrew Osagie finished last … and his time (his best ever, by a lot) would have been fast enough to win gold at each of the last two Olympics.
But Rudisha was running all alone, and for something different from anyone else. He crossed the line in 1:40.91 — the first world record set at the track in London and the first 800-meter run ever under 1:41. It was miraculous. There was a momentary buzz of excitement. There was a brief sense of wonder. And then, well, everyone settled down, and settled in, and waited for the big race.
Usain Bolt was about to run.
Why Bolt? Why is he the one who towers above his sport and all the other sports? He does run the sprint events — the 100 and 200 — and those have been the star-making events in track in recent years. The milers, the decathletes — they have taken a backseat to the men and women who hit top speed and hold on. So, that helps.
There’s something irrepressible about him. That helps. He goofs around. He mugs for the cameras. “I’m going to win!” he said to the BBC camera while he was at the warm-up track on Thursday, and he pointed at the camera as if to say, “You better believe it.” The great 200- and 400-meter sprinter Michael Johnson said that before races, he did not want to talk to anyone, could not talk to anyone, he needed those moments to clear his head.
Bolt? The guy’s talking to a lane official seconds before the race; it kind of looks like he’s asking her on a date. Why not? Shortly after he won the 100-meter dash he was partying with the Swedish handball team. No, seriously. Before this race, he’s joking around with other runners, he’s giving advice to his countrymen, he’s clowning for the fans. If there’s one thing that is irresistible for sports fans, it’s athletes who are not only the best, but who make being the best look easy. So that helps Bolt, too.
He’s a beautiful runner to watch. That helps. Johnson, the last great 200-meter runner, had his own peculiar style; he stood straight up, as if running against the wind, and his arms pumped up and down, and it was sheer power. Yohan Blake, the second-fastest 200-meter runner in the world, the one man who had a shot at beating Bolt on Thursday, runs like a tailback in the open field, with force and rage.
But Bolt? The running is loose, the style is free, the speed is natural. If Bob Marley’s music could sprint, it would look like Usain Bolt.
He talks boldly, and he talks a lot, and he backs it up. That helps. What made Muhammad Ali’s patter so unique wasn’t that he predicted what round he would knock out his opponent; it was that he then knocked out his opponent in that round. Bolt makes big promises, and then he delivers on those promises. In an age of hype and empty talk, that’s something special.
For that matter, he comes up big. That’s rare in any era. People ask now how anyone could have doubted Bolt. But he had given people plenty of reason to doubt. He had fouled out of the 100 meters in the World Championships last year. His countryman Blake had beat him at the Jamaican Olympic Trials. There were rumors about an injury, even more rumors about his condition; Bolt himself said that Blake worked harder and was in better shape.
But in the end, these are the Olympic Games … which means more cameras and more fans and more viewers and more reporters, and if there’s one thing we do know about the mysterious Usain Bolt, it’s that he loves a big moment.
His start in the 200-meter final on Thursday was so fast, so absurdly and ridiculously fast, that the race was really over 50 meters in. Blake had hoped to run him down in the last 25 or 50 meters. But Bolt was too far ahead to catch. As Bolt approached the tape, he slowed down — he would say that he felt something in his back twinge slightly — and he looked to his left to be sure that Blake was behind him, and he held up his finger to his lips as if to say to the world, “Shhhhhhh!”
Only, in that remarkable moment, no one watching could possibly stay quiet.
In London, the papers have been featuring British athletes on their front pages this entire Olympics — Chris Hoy and Jessica Ennis and so on. And Usain Bolt.
In China, the big story has been their many standouts, such as Badminton’s rock star, Lin Dan. And Usain Bolt.
In the United States, we have so many fascinating stories, such as the remarkable finish of Michael Phelps’ unparalleled career, the emergence of Missy Franklin, the triumph of the women’s soccer team, the joy of Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman and Jordan Wieber and the rest of the U.S. gymnastics team.
And … Usain … Bolt.
He is the one athlete today, I think, who transcends nationalism, transcends the fact that people love different Olympic sports, transcends the trend of athletes’ Q rating rising and falling like the housing market. Why? It’s all those things we talk about, and maybe it’s something else, something ineffable. When he gets into the blocks, there’s a charge that goes through you as a fan, a curiosity, a wonder of what might happen next.
How does he do that when all he does, after all, is the simplest of all sporting maneuvers, when all he does is run? I don’t know. All I do know is that there’s nothing quite like him anywhere else in the world.