LONDON -- It has happened so quickly, because that is the way for Olympians. The very best of them seem to appear fully formed on the biggest stage in their universe and then vanish with their medals and their moments, richer and more famous for their work, but long passed into another life. If they are truly transcendent, they emerge again four years later to deliver encores. Legacies are written in just a few days before the public's eyes, built on long hours in isolation. So it was on Thursday night at London's Olympic Stadium with Usain Bolt, a tall man who works in short bursts of greatness and whose name is now writ large among the greatest Olympians in history.
Four years ago, Bolt came to Beijing and won gold medals in the 100 meters, the 200 and the 4x100 relay, setting world records in each event, but far more significantly, in barely a minute's competition time (and perhaps a half hour of pure performance art before and after his races), he burned himself into the consciousness of any consumer on the planet with access to a television set or an internet connection. He was abjectly an instant celebrity who demanded he be watched, and in the ensuing four years he became one of richest Olympic athletes in history, earning more than $10 million a year and enabling the survival of an entire sport. But he would need more. He knew he would need more to, as he said endlessly in London, "become a legend."
Yet he had struggled in 2012, losing both the 100 and 200 at the Jamaican Olympic Trials to 22-year-old training partner Yohan Blake. His perpetually sore back had caused hamstring pain and sharks -- inside the sport and in the media -- circled around him, predicting failure in London. "There were a lot of doubters," said Bolt. "I read a lot, I heard a lot."
But last Sunday night, Bolt hacked off one piece of history by winning the gold medal in the 100 in 9.63 seconds, an Olympic record and the second-fastest time in history, behind his world record of 9.58 seconds set at the 2009 world championship. He joined Carl Lewis (1984-'88) as the only men to win consecutive Olympic 100 titles, and the only one to cross the line first twice (Lewis was elevated to the gold in 1988, after Ben Johnson was disqualified for steroid use).
After that victory, Bolt not only tweeted a wee-hours photograph of himself with three women who were reportedly members of the Swedish Olympic team handball team, but he also found himself certain of what was next.
"After the 100 meters," Bolt said, "I had a lot of confidence that I would win the 200 meters without a doubt."
It had never been done in the history of the Olympic Games. (The double, or the 100 champion tweeting a photo of himself with Swedish handball players, the duality of which is the essence of Bolt.)
So at 13 minutes before 9 p.m. on Thursday night, Bolt walked onto the track at the Olympic Stadium with the other seven sprinters in the 200 final. He joked with two of the young women charged with safeguarding and transporting the plastic bins into which the runners dump their warmups. He talked with Wallace Spearmon of the United States and bumped fists with Blake. Fifty yards away, Christian Taylor of the United States was en route to winning a gold medal in the triple jump, but he was acutely aware of Bolt's presence. "I got a free ticket to see Bolt,'' said Taylor. "Hey, I'm a fan of track and field."
When he was introduced, Bolt waved to the crowd in an exaggerated version of the "Royal Wave," and when the stadium was slow to fall silent for the call to the blocks, he pushed his hands downward as if to say settle down, settle down. When he runs, he owns the house. Yet prior to the race, while there had been fawning respect for his performance in the 100, there were questions about whether he could sustain that speed for 200 meters after such a compacted training period following his defeats in Kingston.
"I just don't know about his speed endurance," said 1996 Olympic 100 champion Donovan Bailey. "He hasn't had much time."
What's more, there was respect for Blake, who last September had run 19.26 seconds in the 200, just .07 off Bolt's sensational world record from Berlin in that 2009 championship.
Yet while Bolt appears simply too big and too fast when he wins 100 races, a 6-foot-5 human pterodactyl in Jamaican yellow and green, his 200 is more technically precise. He excelled in the race at a young age, setting a world junior record of 19.90 seconds at 17, and he has always been a sensational turn runner and was again on Thursday night. Running from lane seven (at the Olympics, runners are lined up in lanes two through nine, with lane one empty), Bolt rose from the blocks as if ejected from them. Within 10 strides he had swallowed the stagger on 22-year-old countryman William Weir and bore down on Anaso Jobodwana of South Africa in lane nine.
Blake's curve was not as good as Bolt's. It never is. But it was respectable. He sprinted with his head down, focusing on the inside of the curve until he began to sense the straightaway approaching.
"Then I looked over to find Usain," said Blake after the race. "I thought, Oh my god, he's so far in front of me. This guy is going full tilt out there. Then I looked back at my own lane."
Bolt knew he had killed the curve.
"I had to run the corner pretty hard," said Bolt, "Because coming into the straight I knew that Yohan Blake would be coming harder. So I came out and ran the curve really hard."
He said he had worked the turn so aggressively that he felt pain in his back, where he has been troubled for years.
"I could feel my back under a little bit of strain," said Bolt. "So I thought, you know, I'm not gonna push myself too much. I'm just going to try to stay in front of Yohan."
(It's instructive that Bolt's back flared up in the most important race of his life. In the weeks before the Olympics, Ralph Mann, a respected biomechanist for USA Track and Field, talked about Bolt's mechanics and injury problems. "You have to remember [Bolt has] been a freak for a long time,'' said Mann to SI's David Epstein. "We knew he was this good when he was younger. You have to remember that kind of power over that kind of frame, you're just on the edge of injury, and he's always been that way. From the time he was 16 to 22 he was constantly injured. ... He's basically had two-and-a-half healthy seasons, and the first one was when he was 16.")
Blake seemed to gain on Bolt down the straightaway, as the crowd found full throat. "I thought I was going to get him," said Blake. "I was gaining, for sure." But Bolt said later that Blake's rally was a mirage. "All I wanted to do," he said, "was stay ahead of Yohan Blake." Whether that is true or just another part of the Bolt mythology will never been known for certain. Bolt surely slowed in the final four strides and put his index finger to his lips, as if telling the stadium to silence its roar, because the outcome was decided.
His winning time, even easing slightly, was 19.32 seconds, the equal to Michael Johnson's then-epic world record from the 1996 Olympics, and the fourth-fastest time in history. Blake crossed in 19.44 his second lifetime trip under 19.50, a place where only he, Bolt and Johnson have gone. Weir recovered from the shock of being passed so quickly to take the bronze medal, giving Jamaica a sweep of the event. Beyond the line, Bolt did pushups for the crowd, planned beforehand, as are most of his celebrations.
In the aftermath, Bolt talked like a man who is deeply satisfied.
"I'm happy because I made myself a legend," he said. "I'm the greatest."
When asked in postrace press conference if he was on a level with Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, he said that he was. Yet he also talked like a man who is nearly finished. He expressed doubt that he will compete four years from now in the 2016 Games in Rio.
"Yohan is 22," said Bolt. "He's doing great things now. I told him two years before this, 'Yohan, this is not your time. This is my time. After this, it's your time.'"
Yet his celebration also turned ugly. When asked about comments in a London newspaper by former BALCO doping guru Victor Conte that 60 percent of the athletes in the Games are doping, Bolt said, "It's annoying when people on the sidelines talk stupid stuff. If you want attention, go do something."
And then, without prompting, Bolt turned the conversation to Carl Lewis, who four years ago had cast doubts on the legitimacy of Bolt's sudden improvement.
"I think a lot of these guys who sit and talk, especially Lewis, nobody really remembers who he is," said Bolt. "It's really annoying that people are trying to taint the sport when it's been going forward." (While Bolt was referencing four-year-old comments from Lewis, in a conversation with two reporters on Thursday Aug. 2 in London, Lewis expressed doubt that Bolt could "flip a switch," in the upcoming Olympic sprints, a reference to suddenly reversing his poor form from earlier races this year.)
It was an unseemly end to a historic night. Yet, as always, in the rhythm of the Games, Bolt is not finished. On Saturday night in the final event of the track competition, Bolt will run on the Jamaican 4x100 relay team, which will be favored to win the gold medal, even without the injured Asafa Powell. It now looms possible that it will be Bolt's final Olympic race, a signpost in the history of the sport, a brief moment worth witnessing and holding.