DAEGU, South Korea -- The significant portion of the world that doesn't pay attention to track and field except when there is a ceremonial flame burning on the rim of the stadium first was brought into Usain Bolt's orbit on the night of Aug. 16, 2008 at the Beijing Birds Nest stadium. It was there that Bolt won the 100-meter gold medal in a world record 9.69 seconds despite dropping anchor before the finish line, a breathtaking show of dismissive domination. Think: Vintage Tiger winning the Masters while laughing and putting with a lob wedge during the Sunday back nine.
(In this way, Bolt's performance served two of the great masters of modern sports fandom: It was breathtaking on its own terms, and measurable; but it also left room for spirited debate. How fast could he have run if he worked all the way through the line? Fans in 2011 love to celebrate action, but no more than they like to grade the draft and recruiting classes before any of the players put on pads).
For me, the Bolt revelation came more than three months earlier, on May 31 at Icahn Stadium in New York. Bolt had shaken the track world (that much smaller portion of the population that actually pays attention all the time) by running 9.76 seconds on May 3 in Kingston in his native Jamaica. He was only 21 years old and while he had been a precocious 200-meter runner in his teens, he seemed more likely to move up to the 400 than down to the 100. (Here's a detail that may unfairly invite a snarky comparison: I was covering the Kentucky Derby that day, watching a legally steroid-infused horse named Big Brown easily win the race).
Bolt waited out a thunderstorm that night in New York and then ran 9.72 seconds to take .02 off countryman Asafa Powell's world record. And he did it just like he would do in Beijing, minus the early celebration. He looked like a big kid messing with little kids (U.S. sprinter Darvis (Doc) Patton described it in exactly those terms after the beatdown) and one of those little kids was Tyson Gay, who had won the world title 10 months earlier and, until that night, was the Beijing 100-meter Olympic favorite. (Although, to be fair, Gay was not race-sharp at the time and probably deserved credit for showing up and taking a drubbing that he had to know was coming).
Twenty-one years old. So dominant. And here was the revelation gold medals had been swept off the table for the next decade. They were not in play, except for Bolt. A generation was running for silver.
Or was it?
For anyone who saw Bolt in that spring or summer of 2008 or in the following summer of '09, when he re-broke his world records in the 100 (from 10.69 down to 9.58) and the 200 (from 19.30 to 19.19) at the '09 Worlds in Berlin, it was inconceivable that he would be beaten in the future. Yet on Sunday night (Sunday morning in the U.S.), Bolt will race the final of the 100 meters (presuming he gets through his semifinal earlier in the evening) and he actually has something to prove.
Since his epic 9.58 in Berlin on Aug. 16 of 2009, Bolt has run nine 100-meter races, none faster than 9.81 seconds, which is what he ran to win in Zurich immediately after the '09 worlds ended. In 2010 he ran 9.86, 9.82, 9.84, 10.10 and 9.97 (in a loss to Gay before shutting down with a back injury). This year he has come back and run three 100s in 9.91, 9.91 and 9.88 and three 200s in times ranging from 19.86 (once) to 20.03 (twice), far off his world record.
Why has he not been running consistently faster? There are many possibilities. Perhaps he is still not healthy from the back injury, or, in the same vein, missed so much training time that he's just not at the same level of fitness as in '08 and '09. Or perhaps 9.58 and 19.19 are just the type of performances that can't be often -- or ever -- duplicated. Earlier this week, three-time world champion and 2000 Olympic gold medalist Maurice Greene told me he thought Bolt was "vulnerable.'' Beyond that, Greene said, "His technique and execution have never been great. But he figured things out for those two years. Now he's not executing well and he looks more like Bolt from before those two years."
Does that make him beatable? Kim Collins, the 35-year-old 2003 world champion, who advanced through Saturday night's first round, says, "He's definitely getable, he's been getable for a while."
But here, says Collins, it gets more complicated. "Nobody's been beating him, even though it's been possible, because everybody is okay with being the bridesmaid. When Mo Greene was dominating everyone for a long time, everyone got together and said, 'Let's beat this guy.' And eventually someone beat him. Now everybody is okay with Usain being the champion and they don't want to slap him in the face and say, 'Usain, I'm going to beat you.'"
It's just a theory. But it sounds like something that smacks a little of intimidation and a little of just enjoying Bolt's scenery-chewing act (and speed) and going along for the ride.
U.S. sprinter Walter Dix, who followed Collins' heat Saturday night by smoothly running through to the semifinals, confirms part of the theory. "I'm trying to win three gold medals," said Dix after his heat. "Whoever is in the race, I want to beat him."
But Bolt's presence is different, right? "Of course," Dix says. "When he's in the race, everybody is watching."
Is he intimidated? "Never," said Dix.
Bolt ran Saturday night in the sixth of seven heats. The world championship format has been reconfigured so that top runners only have to contest three races, instead of four, which was the norm in past years. A digression here: It's impossible to overstate the degree to which Bolt is the whole show in international track and field. It's like the entire meet is a JV game and any event Bolt races in is the varsity.
Earlier this week, NBC analyst and four-time Olympic medalist Ato Boldon, was talking about Bolt's best races, in particular the 9.58 in Berlin. In that race, Bolt's start was quick and explosive. Instead of using his long stride to run down opponents, he was in the lead immediately. It was a game-changing moment. "I saw that and I thought, 'Where did that come from?'" says Boldon.
In the two seasons since Berlin, Bolt's start has been sluggish at best, plodding at worst. (And with the new one-and-out false start rule, it's terrifying to risk a red card, especially when the entire sport is riding on your Jamaican singlet). Yet on Saturday night, Bolt's start reappeared. He was away fast and clean, narrowly the third-fastest reaction in the field and by 20 meters he was gone. He shut it down at 60 meters and jogged -- no lie, jogged -- across the finish line. His time of 10.10 seconds was the fastest of any qualifiers, although his headwind of 0.7 meters per second, was the lightest of any heat.
"That was a good run," said Bolt, post-race. "I've been working on my start all season, and I finally got it right." Asked how fast he can run, Bolt said, as he has always said, "Time is just time. It's always about winning." Know this: It passed the eye test. It's always perilous to read too much into performances in sprint heats, and Bolt's opposition was very weak, but Bolt looked a little more like '08 vintage, at least for one round.
And aside from marketing campaigns, Puma's entire advertising budget, the hopes and dreams of a Jamaica and pretty much the foundation of a struggling sport, Bolt has much to gain. His '08 and '09 numbers will be chased for a long time, but the greatest track athletes are those who can dominate their event -- or events -- consistently over a sustained period of time. Bolt is only 25, but he's still only been on top for three years, including one Olympics and one world championships.
Consider Michael Johnson. He won his first world 200-meter title in 1991, doubled in the 200 and 400 at the '95 worlds and '96 Olympics, set world records in '96 (200) and '99 (400) and got his last Olympic gold in 2000. He took at least one gold medal at every global championship in the 90's and then tacked on Sydney. It was a solid decade on top.
But his most critical gold medal in that stretch came in the 1997 world championships. Still suffering the effects of a thigh injury suffered in the nice-try-but-it-didn't-work 150-meter match race against '96 Olympic 100-meter champion Donovan Bailey of Canada, Johnson dragged himself around the track on 1.8 legs (educated guess) and won the 400 in the pedestrian (for him, it would be epic now) time of 44.12 seconds.
Likewise, Greene was injured in the homestretch of the 100 meters at the 2001 worlds, but hung on to beat the later-disgraced (and now imprisoned) Tim Montgomery. It gave him three straight world titles.
Who knows why Bolt hasn't been like an Xbox monster for the last two years. But maybe this year is like Johnson's '97 or Greene's 2001 for him. It would be nuts to look at one preliminary heat and assume that the Beast is Back. While it's true that the four fastest 100-meter runners of 2011 are not here (Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay Injured, Steve Mullings busted for a masking agent and Mike Rodgers for a stimulant), Jamaicans Yohan Blake and Nesta Carter and Dix are all capable of pushing the Bolt who has been running for the last 23 months, and maybe capable of beating him.
(Not so sure about Justin Gatlin, who looked dull in his heat, perhaps still bothered by his frostbitten feet).
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.