In some ways, very little has changed in the four years since Usain Bolt evolved sprinting. When it comes time to introduce Bolt at an international track meet anywhere on the planet, the stadium falls into anticipatory silence. A steadicam operator trains his lens on Bolt, who then puts on a little show. Sometimes he feigns slicking back his hair. Sometimes he runs through a series of hand gestures. At all times -- including when he is sick or injured, which of late, has been quite frequently -- he seems sublimely relaxed.
What has palpably changed is the expectation of greatness after the gun is fired. When Bolt, then 21, came to Beijing three years ago, he had recently broken the world record in the 100 meters and achieved a celebrity status in the track and field world that had not yet crossed over into the broad world of sports (or mainstream culture). Then he ran 9.69 to win the Olympic gold medal in the 100 meters, yet earned more buzz for shutting down in the final strides, mocking the event and his opponents and leaving the sense that being the fastest man on earth was easy. He became the default noun for "fast.'' (Old softball player chiding teammate for trying to stretch hit into a double: "Who do you think you are, Usain Bolt?'')
Four nights later he didn't shut anything down and broke Michael Johnson's unbreakable 200-meter world record in 19.30 seconds (Johnson's record from the '96 Olympics had been 19.32).
Wise people can debate whether Bolt or Michael Phelps left Beijing a bigger star, but there's no debating that Bolt created the bigger moments. (Phelps created more moments, of nearly matching magnitude; his was a triumph of quantity, whereas Bolt's was a triumph of jaw-dropping in-the-moment greatness on two nights). But it can be argued either way.
What cannot be argued is that Bolt's Beijing performance created a ridiculous standard. And then a year later, he broke the 100 (9.58) and 200 (19.19) records at the world championships in Berlin, raising the bar of expectation even further. Can Bolt live up to the hype in London? Yes and no. Yes, because he will be the favorite in both events and Jamaica will be the favorite in the 4X100-meter relay. No man in history has won the 100 and 200 in consecutive Olympics (Carl Lewis came close in 1984 and '88, with two golds in the 100 and gold-silver in the deuce).
But no, because it's asking a lot for Bolt to keep lowering his world records and winning by daylight.
Bolt's spectacular '08 and '09 seasons were followed by an injury-shortened 2010 season in which he was limited by back problems to eight races, laid down season bests of only 9.82 for 100 meters and 19.56 for 200 (faster than most humans, but short of his records). This year Bolt has twice been sick before big races, and clearly feeling the effects of a late training start because of the back injuries. As of mid-July, he had run only five races, with pedestrian bests of 9.88 for 100 meters and 19.86 (albeit in the rain) for 200 meters. On July 22 in Monaco, Bolt went all-out to run down countryman Nesta Carter in a Diamond League 100 in Monaco. He is expected to run the 200 Friday night in Stockholm.
It makes sense that Bolt, like most track athletes, is pointing his training toward the late August world championships in Daegu, South Korea, and using that competition as the first building block in the push toward London.
Still, sprinting does not look as easy for Bolt today as it did in 2008 and '09. But the competition is not catching up. American Tyson Gay, the 2007 100- and 200-meter world champion, who was still regarded as Bolt's biggest competition, underwent season-ending hip surgery in early July. Gay's future seems very much in doubt. Bolt's countryman Asafa Powell has been faster than Bolt in 2011, but Powell has a terrible record under major championship pressure.
Bolt will be just 25 years old when the Olympic flame is lit. Even though he was running internationally at age 16, it's implausible that he's past his prime. It's not, however, implausible that Bolt's world records are the measure of such stunning performances that neither he -- nor anybody else -- will reach them in Daegu or London.
So this is the question worth asking in the next 365 days: If Bolt wins gold medals in London, will he do so with the same flourish as he did in the Beijing Birds Nest? Check back after Daegu, but it's asking a lot.