Monday August 17th, 2009

BERLIN -- The world's fastest man is now even faster, swifter still than the Usain Bolt who sprinted and danced to an Olympic victory at the Beijing Olympics last year. The Jamaican superstar fired off another world record at the world championships in Berlin Sunday, lowering his own 100-meter mark to 9.58 seconds from the 9.69 he ran in winning the Olympics. Unlike last summer, Bolt ran through the finish line, waiting until after his moment in history to celebrate. He was gamely chased by a rejuvenated Tyson Gay, the U.S. rival and defending world champion who was felled by a hamstring injury last year and established himself as a worthy challenger to Bolt with some strong early-season performances. Gay finished in a solid 9.71 seconds, a time only Bolt has ever surpassed in history. Jamaica's Asafa Powell finished third in 9.84.

The superb effort by Gay was never enough to challenge Bolt. The Jamaican, who often starts slowly, had him beat after a few strides. True, Bolt measured himself by world records and levels of animation in Beijing. When he won the 200 there, he eclipsed Michael Johnson's seemingly unbeatable world record, lowering it from 19.32 seconds to 19.30. Earlier, he set a world record 9.69 seconds in the 100 after looking around for his competition at the end of the race and losing time in the process.

The race in Berlin was different because Bolt had a worthy challenger, a defending world champion who ran like one and would have been able to repeat were he not running against a superstar for the ages. And yet the outcome was never in doubt. "I got a good start," said Bolt. "Then I got into my drive phase and after 50 meters I knew I was in good shape." This was like [Roger] Federer beating [Rafael] Nadal or Nadal beating Federer. It only made the victory sweeter because the runner-up would have been a champ against a lesser rival.

Sure, Bolt waited until after the race to celebrate, but he didn't miss out on the party. Before he even went into his victory lap, Bolt put out his hands as though he was soaring like an airplane. He then made his famous gesture by pointing his arms like a shooting lightning bolt. As Bolt rounded the track, the song American Boy began playing over the loudspeaker. Bad choice. Bolt started shaking his head, wagging his finger and pointing at his Jamaican team sniglet. He then put his hand over his ear as though he were waiting for the song to change. When it finally did, he clapped and continued his lap.

In fact, before and after the four round of racing over two days, Bolt looked like the 22-year-old kid with talent and frivolity to spare.

Before the semifinals earlier in the evening, the ever-playful Bolt licked his fingers and then brushed back his eyebrows and pantomimed a shot from an archery bow. The Olympic champion looked like nothing could hold him back. Gay, after all, was the one who had seemed wound up all week. A few days earlier, when asked about a change in the rules that would eliminate the one false start allowed to the field before disqualification, Gay expressed concerns about the rule, while Bolt applauded it, because after all, he noted, he doesn't false start.

Until tonight's semifinals. That's when Bolt jumped the gun, sending a wave of surprise throughout Olympic Stadium. The wave turned to a serious gasp moments later when officials blew the gun for a second false start, indicating a disqualification. After a 15-second discussion, officials fingered Britain's Tyrone Edgar as the culprit.

But after the runners re-set themselves the third time, Bolt shot out of the blocks and easily pulled away from the field. He crossed in 9.89, looking over his left shoulder to espy the other runners and convey the thought that the run was a snap. His training partner, Daniel Bailey of Antigua, finished a strong second in 9.96, followed by Darvis Patton of the U.S. in 9.98 and Marc Burns of Trinidad in 10.01. That left Mike Rodgers, the summer's U.S. champ, on the outs, after he placed fifth in 10.04.

Gay then captured the second semifinal, pulling ahead of Powell over the last 40 meters and easing across the line at the end. Gay finished in 9.93 seconds, with Powell two-hundredths back, in second place. Richard Thompson of Trinidad ran a solid 9.98 to finish third.

Shortly before the final two hours later, Bolt stood in lane four, put his left hand in front of his face, as if to indicate contemplation. Then he waited for his face to appear on the large scoreboard and removed his hand to reveal a huge smile. No problem, the smile was saying. I've got this. Beside Bolt in lane five, Gay rocked back and forth, stopping to shake hands with Powell in lane six. When he was introduced, Gay waved and then turned his back to the camera, walking behind his lane. As he did, the camera shifted to Powell who had taped the papered number six, indicating his lane number, over his mouth.

"I train all year to run the hundred, so I know what to do," Bolt said, explaining his antics. "For me, I know I can have all the fun I want before and after the race, because I know what I've got to do."

Bolt's fast start was a surprise. At 6-foot-5, he usually takes several strides to get into a running groove. He is rarely the quickest out of the blocks. By the midway part of the race, the three medalists had separated themselves decisively from the field. Even Gay sounded impressed by the result. "It may sound strange," he said after the race, "but I'm really glad Usain Bolt broke the record. I gave it my best. I ran as hard as I could."

Granted, Gay could have a second shot at Bolt in the 200-meter final on Thursday. Still, both men seemed spent by their efforts in the 100. Gay mentioned his groin was still acting up and he needed to see the doctor before he even knew for sure that he could run the 200. Bolt said he doubted he could approach the 19.30 he ran in Beijing, because he has been running mostly hundreds this year and even missed some training time he could have devoted to the 200 because of a minor car accident. "Tyson is a great athlete and I appreciate how he pushed me," said Bolt. "I don't know about this week, but for a long time between us it's going to be on."

Bolt already has the gift of gab and magical charisma of an Ali. With a healthy Gay, he also has his Frazier to push him, and the records are all the more likely to keep falling because of it.

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