LONDON -- One is impossibly tall for his pursuit, the other appropriately slight. One is cartoonishly bombastic, pushing the envelope of self-aggrandizement so far -- "Bask in my glory," he said near the end of one of his press conferences here -- that it seems he can't be taking himself seriously. Unless he is. The other is so humble that he seems transplanted into someone else's dream, wide-eyed and awestruck at his accomplishments, hard-won though they might be. Usain Bolt does pushups after his races, in celebration, and Mo Farah does crunches.
The beleaguered sport of track and field never stands taller than on the final night of competition at the Olympic Games. A stadium has been filled for nine consecutive nights and medals have been awarded in a nonstop riot of high performance and drama in the biggest physical space at the Games. There is nothing quite like it in the Olympics, in its attachment to the fundamental measures of athletic skill -- Faster, higher, stronger -- and its giant presentation. For these days, its as if the sport is transported from the distant margins of play -- out there with your skiercross and your ice dancing -- into the vortex of the mainstream.
So it was on Saturday night that Usain Bolt, the soon-to-be 26-year-old Jamaican sprinter whose personality and performances have both swallowed the sport of track and field whole and kept it viably alive, predictably anchored his country's 4x100-meter relay team to the gold medal in a world record time of 36.84 seconds, .17 under the record they had set at the world championship a year ago in Daegu, South Korea. And that Mohamed (Mo) Farah, who moved to London from his native Somalia at the age of 8 and has long been embraced as a Briton, took the gold medal in the 5,000 to become the first man in the last 60 years to win both the 5,000 and 10,000 in the same Olympics.
And at 9:45 p.m., amid a cool, East London evening, Bolt was presented with his sixth Olympic gold medal (three in Beijing, three more in London, a repeat of his 100-200-4x100 relay triple, unprecedented in Olympic history) and stood atop the medal stand for the playing of the Jamaican anthem. When it was finished, Bolt stepped back on the apron of the running track and with his yellow-and-green nylon jacket flapping in the autumnal night breeze he directed the crowd of 80,000 in a wave, pointing to each successive section and directing them to stand, suddenly making a tired practice seem fresh.
Fifteen minutes later came a far more reverential moment. Farah, 29, who on the second night of track and field competition had won the 10,000 (Great Britain's third gold medal in 46 minutes), finally won the host nation's fourth gold, with a long, tough finishing pull over the final 700 meters of the 5,000, running his last 1600 meters (slightly less than a mile) in 3 minutes, 57 seconds and his last 400 meters in 52.9 seconds. In that feat, he joined Emil Zatopek (1952), Lasse Viren (1972 and '76) and Kenenisa Bekele (2008). He stood on the top step of the victory rostrum and the entire stadium seemed to sing God Save The Queen, an emotional preview of Sunday night's closing ceremony.
They were appropriate punctuating images to end a competition that had been dominated in the larger picture by the United States, which nearly achieved the seemingly unattainable goal of 30 medals established by deposed CEO Doug Logan three years ago. The U.S. finished with 29 medals -- nine gold, 13 silver and seven bronze, its highest grand total since winning 30 medals two decades ago in Barcelona . The nine golds were the most since U.S. athletes won 13 in Atlanta in 1996. (Russia finished second with 18 total medals and eight gold; Bolt-led Jamaica, with a team comprised entirely of sprinters, had four golds and 12 total medals).
The American gold-medal performance concluded on the final night at Olympic Stadium when the U.S. women's 4x400 relay team (Dee Dee Trotter, Allyson Felix, Francena McCorory and 400 gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross) took first place by a whopping 3.35 seconds over Russia, the widest margin in Olympic history. Allyson Felix ran the second leg of the relay in a blistering 47.8 seconds -- one of the fastest splits in history -- to secure her third gold medal of the Games (her first individual gold in the 200 and the second on the U.S. 4x100 relay that shattered East Germany's 27-year-old world record on Friday night). The last American woman to win three golds at the Games was Florence Griffith Joyner in 1988. "It's been just an amazing experience," said Felix, who also won an Olympic gold medal four years ago on the 4x400 relay and has two individual silvers in the 200, along with 10 world championship medals (eight of them gold).
The broader world of track and field will perhaps remember most vividly the virtuoso gold-medal, world-record, 800-run by David Rudisha, who clocked 1:40.91, shaving a tenth of a second off his two-year-old world mark and dragging five men -- including Americans Duane Solomon and Nick Symmonds -- under 1:43, by far the fastest 800 race in history. Britons might also embrace in perpetuity heptathlete Jessica Ennis' gold medal, achieved over seven events on the first two nights of track and field competition, ending with an emotional win in the 800.
But none are likely to resonate like Bolt. And significantly behind, but also significant, Farah. Trained by American marathoning legend Alberto in Oregon (but also in New Mexico, Utah and France), Farah had used a withering sprint to dominate the 10,000 (in front of training partner Galen Rupp of the U.S., who won a historic silver). The 5,000 was tougher; Farah escaped traffic with 700 meters to run, but that wasn't what propelled him to victory. As a home country Olympian, he was lifted by a delirious crowd.
"It just got louder and louder," said Farah. "It reminded me of a football match, when somebody scores a goal." [Farah is famously an Arsenal supporter and played soccer as a teenager.] "If it hadn't been for the crowd support, I wouldn't have [won gold medals] twice."
Bolt seemingly has every crowd's support. Before the Olympics, U.S. veteran shot putter Adam Nelson told Sports Illustrated, "Without him, we have no sport,'' because Bolt's personality and speed fill stadiums, even on the mundane international circuit. The 4x100 relay is traditionally the last track and field event of the Games, and it almost was on Saturday night. (The men's marathon runs tomorrow morning.) Jamaica has set world records in two of the last three global championships (the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and Daegu worlds in 2011). The U.S. challenged with Trell Kimmons and Justin Gatlin running even with Nesta Carter and Michael Frater on the first two legs, but Gatlin's pass to Tyson was slow and Gay lost ground on the turn leg to Olympic 100 runner-up Yohan Blake. Bolt easily ran away from U.S. anchor and first-time Olympian Ryan Bailey, who said he was "running for [his] life."
Across the finish line, Bolt used the baton to mimic Farah's "Mo-bot," move, with both hands on his head, forming a curled letter M. It was a gesture of fun, like Farah's sit-ups, but also of respect.
"I've known Mo since I was first a professional," said Bolt. "Through the good times, the fun times, the sad times." Their medal ceremonies came back to back, but then as always happens with sports -- Olympian and otherwise -- attention turned swiftly forward.
Salazar said that Farah will continue training and run the 5,000 and 10,000 at the 2013 world championship in Moscow. "The plan is to continue on the track for one more year, and then move up to the marathon," said Salazar. "And once you move up, it's not that you can't come back down, but you probably won't improve anymore."
The sport is justifiably obsessed with Bolt's future plans.
"I think the sport is healthy, but if he were to leave,'' said NBC analyst Ato Boldon, "it would leave a huge void." Bolt's longtime agent, Ricky Simms said, "The plan has always been to continue through 2017, and finish the cycle back here in London [at the 2017 world championship]."
Five more years seems interminable for an athlete with a bad back and a history of injuries. (Boldon said, "Five years? That sounds like a long time to me. I can see him going up and down for a few years and then coming back for Rio.")
After winning the 200 two nights earlier, Bolt said that the future was Blake's time. But he seemed to look forward Saturday night.
"I'll see if I can go to Rio and do it again," he said. "But I think that's going to be very, very hard."
He was asked about running the 400 meters, which was his primary event as a high school runner a decade ago, but which he has not run seriously in years.
"My coach wants me to do it," said Bolt. "But have you seen how 400-meter runners train? I like my lunch."
It is the humor in Bolt's touch as much as the speed in his feet that drives his popularity. The sport of track and field is forever beset by concerns about the use of performance enhancing drugs, including several occasions at these Games. On occasion, Bolt is connected to innuendo, because he runs so fast and once did not. But in the end, the rumors fade when he plays, because his work is so infectious. It is the soul of his sport, and the soul of these Games.