By Stuart Calderwood—Before the London Games, there was a lot of talk about how Usain Bolt, the biggest star of track and field at the Beijing Olympics, and now one of the most recognizable people in the world—who else has an instantly identifiable pose?—was going to be eclipsed in London by his own teammate, Yohan "the Beast" Blake, who won the 2011 World Championships 100 meters after Bolt false-started out of the race, and then got amazingly close (seven hundredths of a second) to his more famous training partner's 200-meter world record. Bolt could still claim superiority at that point, but not after Blake beat him in both events at the Jamaican Championships.
I came to London hoping that Bolt would bounce back. Nothing against Blake, who seems likable, but I dreaded seeing Bolt fall from the near-unprecedented heights that he'd reached. I'd seen his influence change the way that many sprinters approached their races: Bolt's loose, clearly relaxed pre-race mood even before Olympic finals had made several of the most intense, high-strung sprinters start to follow his example: They let their guard down, put aside the super-stern game face, and smiled at the crowds and the cameras. And his post-race celebrations—dancing, hugging mascots, mugging for photographers, and of course his signature archer pose—had delighted crowds like nothing else I've ever seen at a track meet. I couldn't deny wanting to see what Bolt would do with his incredible talent—if he was still at the same level—and wanting to enjoy whatever he might do after a race. At the last three major championships—in Beijing, Berlin (Worlds 2009), and Daegu, South Korea (Worlds 2011)—he's made stadium crowds of 80,000 people feel like they're all his friends who shared his victory.
Good sprinters run a lot of races in an Olympics. Bolt has now run five: three rounds of the 100 meters and the first two rounds of the 200—and he has one 200 and two 400-meter relays to go. But even at this point, the verdict in in: Bolt is back, as fast, fun, and friendly as ever, shooting imaginary arrows with the same exuberance he displays in his races. He blasted away from Blake and the rest of the fastest 100-meter field ever assembled to set a new Olympic record with the second-fastest time in history (behind his own world record, of course), and stadium announcer Garry Hill proclaimed a state of Usainity as Bolt toured the stadium in a prolonged celebration.
The 200 final looks very likely to be similarly spectacular. After that race, Bolt will try to get another world record out of his Jamaican relay team (they did it in Bejing and Berlin). No one seems concerned in the slightest at the news—which Bolt tweeted himself, with pictures—that he'd been up until 3am partying with three (female) Swedish handball players after his 100-meter victory. (What else would he be doing?) And no one begrudges him his place atop the celebrity scene, here or anywhere; he's clearly as delighted by his fame as he is unaffected by it.
A lot of Olympians seem—for very good reason—as though they've devoted their lives to their sport for so long that it's nearly all they think or care about. Dr. Roger Bannister wrote in First Four Minutes that to devote one's life primarily to sport is to squander it, and he retired to devote himself to medicine and his family rather than try again for the Olympic medal that had eluded him. I don't think that Dr. Bannister, who's here watching the Games, has to worry very much about Usain Bolt. Sport isn't his life; his life is a sport.
Bolt runs the 200m final today at 3:55pm EDT. See what happened tonight on NBC's primetime coverage.