DAEGU, South Korea -- This time, Usain Bolt showed us more.
He gave us all the usual pieces, like an actor in a long-running play delivering his lines or Skynyrd doing Free Bird back in the day. On a late summer night, he looked at the video board when his name was announced, slicked his eyebrows, shot the lightning bolt pose and then tossed off some martial arts moves. Then he came racing down the straightaway of a running track far from his home in Jamaica, looked left and right and then bared his teeth. He hit the finish line first, glanced at the clock and then slowed to a stop, a champion once again.
Photographers swarmed, fans swooned, the legend grew.
It happened in 2008 at the Olympics in Beijing. It happened again in 2009 at the world championships in Berlin. On Sunday night this all took place at Daegu Stadium in the 200-meter final at the 13th worlds. Bolt won the race in 19.40 seconds, the fourth-fastest time in history (two of the fastest three are already Bolt's, including his two-year-old world record of 19.19) and a full three-tenths of a second in front of silver medalist Walter Dix of the United States.
It was all very exciting, but also very familiar, The Essential Bolt. The worlds close Sunday night, and barring a very unlikely loss by Jamaica in the 4X100-meter relay (once, but no longer, the province of Team USA), Bolt will leave South Korea with two gold medals. Yet those will scarcely tell the story of what he did here. "He matured," says veteran U.S. personal sprint coach John Smith, coach of worlds 100-meter gold medalist Carmelita Jeter, and many other Olympic and world gold medalists. "He grew up."
Bolt is 25 years old, no kid. He has been on the world track stage since he was 16 years old and a global celebrity since before his 22nd birthday (which he celebrated in Beijing). But these championships, where track athletes build their legacies (although not to the extent that they do at the Olympic Games), tested him. They tested him because he had been fighting to return to top fitness for more than a year and they tested him because he -- embarrassingly, frustratingly, unjustly; pick an adverb -- false-started out of the 100 meters, which is the marquee event of any track meet, and especially any meet in which Bolt is participating.
Before the final of the 100 meters, I wrote a story in which I tried to make the case that these worlds were truly the defining moment of Bolt's career, to this point. I felt that way because he hadn't been 100 percent and dominant, really, since the Berlin worlds in the summer of '09. This is how I ended that piece: If Bolt loses, he's a two-year wonder, Flo-Jo doubled until further notice. If he wins, it's one more step toward a long, dominant career, uninterrupted by failure when it counts most.
Looking back at that, maybe it was a little strong, because Bolt is so young and could run in three more Olympics if he stays relatively fit and healthy. But the larger point is that Bolt needed to show that he could win when he wasn't on a sick roll, when he wasn't at his best and when things weren't going perfectly for him. This meet gave him that opportunity in a big way.
Bolt obviously didn't win the 100 meters, but that made the 200 even more significant. It's not like he got hurt; he took himself out of the meet with a foolish false start. He stormed out of the stadium, issued a bland statement (which he surely didn't author) the next day and then went silent until after the first two rounds of the 200 on Friday night. That's all fine. He was angry.
Once he started talking (on Friday after those first two rounds), he immediately owned up to the false start.
"It was my fault," he said Friday night. And he said it again Saturday after winning the deuce. There had been a significant media outcry after the false start to rescind the IAAF rule that mandates anyone false starts even once be thrown out of the race. (I was among those who criticized the rule; and I still think it's a bad rule). "It has taught me a lesson to focus and to stay in the blocks," Bolt said. "You should wait and listen. The guy with the gun is the guy who gives the commands. Don't try to [anticipate] the gun." It was a smart response, even if it took five days to provide it.
But again, Bolt hadn't tasted major championship frustration since his '08 breakthrough. It is a different kind of setback and if his initial response was petulant, he rallied well.
As Bolt lined up in the 200 on the penultimate night of the meet, he was running on the heels of the brilliant Australian Sally Pearson, who had just won the 100-meter hurdles in a blistering 12.28 seconds, which was the fastest time in the world in 19 years and made her the fourth-fastest woman in history (displacing legendary American Gail Devers on the all-time list). Hers was the performance of the meet.
For Americans, it was another solid night. Danielle Carruthers, 31, took the silver medal and Dawn Harper, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist, the bronze behind Pearson.
Matthew Centrowitz, a rising senior at the University of Oregon and the son of two-time Olympian Matt Centrowitz, scored a stunning bronze medal in the men's 1,500 meters with a sublimely professional tactical performance. "He ran that race like he's been here four or five times," said Andrew Wheating, Centrowitz's former teammate at Oregon, who has been injured most of the year and was eliminated in the 1,500-meter heats. Bernard Lagat won the world 1,500-meter title for the U.S. in 2007 and a bronze in 2009, but before that, the last U.S. medal in the men's metric mile was Jim Spivey in 1987 in Rome.
The women's 4X400-meter relay won the gold medal. With one day of competition left, Team USA has 10 gold medals and a total of 21 medals. In Berlin, the final total was 10 gold and 22 overall (the record is 14 golds, in Helsinki in 2005 and Osaka in '07; the overall record is 26, in Rome in '91 and again in Osaka). The U.S. team has a shot at three golds on Sunday and as many as four medals overall.
But on Saturday it was Bolt who ended the night. (He will end the night on Sunday as well, anchoring the Jamaican 4X400 instead of the injured Asafa Powell). He went through his elaborate pre-race show, and then climbed into the blocks at the starter's command. Bolt had drawn lane three (the top finishers in semifinal heats are randomly assigned lanes 3-6). "It was hard for me, because I was in a tight corner," said Bolt. "I like to get an [outside] lane. The tighter lane is a bigger strain on my body."
Also, aside from whatever energy he brought to the race to atone for the 100-meter mess, Bolt had been struggling for a long time while coming back from the back injury that ended his 2010 and delayed his early training for this year. His best 200-meter time was 19.86 seconds.
He was clearly chastened by his false start and had the slowest reaction time in the field to the gun, .193 seconds. Not dreadful, but not good. But he immediately ripped after Walter Dix of the U.S., who was outside Bolt in Lane Four. "I tried to beat him on the curve and I didn't do it," said Dix after the race. (Still, Dix, who has the misfortune of racing in the Bolt Era, won two bronze medals in Beijing and two silvers here. "Two golds at the Olympics," he said at a post-race press conference.
Dix actually did get out well enough (.161 reaction time) to give Bolt a respectable target on the turn. "I don't think anybody has ever pressed him on the turn like Dix did," said three-time world champion Maurice Greene. "Walter made him run."
Still, Bolt caught Dix before the 100-meter start and opened daylight. It got tougher after that, as Bolt began thrashing with his arms and grimacing before dipping slightly at the line. He had a slight tailwind. It was a terrific performance but not an easy performance. Bolt said: "It wasn't a perfect start and it wasn't perfect technique at the finish, but I ran as I hard as I possibly could. I'm proud of myself."
I texted NBC analyst Ato Boldon after the race and asked him "Was that race technically proficient of did Bolt just dig down?"
Boldon texted back: "Dug down." And later: "I admire this run more than Beijing or Berlin because he has run only 19.86 prior to this in 2011 and has looked average all year."
Dix's time of 19.70 in the final is just off his four-year-old PR of 19.69. Behind him was a stunning 19.80 national record by Christophe Lemaitre of France. It was the second-fastest 1-2-3 200-meter race in history, behind the 1996 Olympic final (Michael Johnson 19.32, Frankie Fredericks 19.68 and Boldon 19.80).
But all of that is secondary to Bolt's singular performance. There was a time when Bolt was known on the circuit for his complacency and for squandering his talent in the 200 meters. (He was never expected to be a great 100-mter runner). Bolt had run 19.93 at age 17. The false start, the improving, but not quite peak fitness, the poor lane ... they were all impediments to easy greatness and yet Bolt delivered greatness just the same. When he might have slipped, instead he became bigger.