LONDON -- Last Sunday night I was in the dimly lit area underneath the stands at Olympic Park known as the mixed zone, a zoo-like space where reporters crowd and jostle and climb over each other like pigs in a pen, hurling questions at the athletes and trying to maneuver close enough to catch their answers. The usual chaos was proceeding, with the media lined up five or six deep in some places, conducting mass interviews of some of the sprinters from the women's 400 meters. Then, on the TV monitors nearby, Usain Bolt appeared.
Suddenly there was no more mixing in the zone. People hushed, and those who didn't were shushed. The place fell stone silent. Olympic volunteers moved away from their posts to get a better view of the monitors. Christine Ohuruogu of Great Britain, who had just won a silver medal in the 400, stopped one of her answers mid-sentence, turned her back to the media to face the screen, and sat down on the floor to watch Bolt run the finals of the 100. It is the unwritten rule of these Olympics -- when the great Bolt is in view, all else becomes unimportant. Drop everything, and behold.
That is what a star does to people. He freezes them in place, makes them feel as if they have no choice but to watch him perform. It is why Bolt is as luminous an athlete as there is in sports at this moment, and why, with all due respect to the greatness of Michael Phelps, the 2012 Olympics have been, more than anything, Usain Bolt's show.
This is not to say that he is necessarily the greater Olympian -- however you define that -- or that his performance in these Games has been superior to Phelps'. There are a thousand ways to argue those issues, from both sides. Phelps has 22 medals, more than anyone in Olympic history (which has been mentioned in the media roughly once for every stroke he has taken at the Aquatics Center.) But Bolt has made history of his own, as the only man to repeat as gold medalist in the 100 and 200. Bolt has never lost an Olympic final; with his gold Saturday in Jamaica's 4x100 relay he is six for six. But Phelps has a remarkable winning percentage himself -- 18 wins in 23 races -- in nearly four times as many trips to the starting blocks. Who's "better," the sprinter or the swimmer? If you enjoy debating unanswerable questions, have at it.
But who is the bigger star? Who has captured the attention of fans and athletes alike? Which one sends, yes, a bolt of electricity through any area he enters? Those are far easier questions. Star power is intangible, but when it has a wattage like Bolt's, it's still easy to see. Phelps is legendary, remarkable to watch, as skilled at what he does as anyone has ever been. But Bolt is the star. He is the one who had the fans at Olympic Stadium chanting "Bolt! Bolt! Bolt!" after the 4x100 medal ceremony Saturday night. And of course Bolt, ever the showman, rewarded them by striking several poses. He is the one who ranks No. 1 on the list of the 50 most marketable athletes, according to the international sports magazine
Bolt's appeal was obvious before the Games even began, as he caused even his peers to become giddy in his presence. He walked into the athletes' village at the cafeteria one day "and everyone started cheering like crazy," U.S. swimmer Natalie Coughlin said. "I thought maybe it was Prince William or something, the way everyone was acting."
People simply want to be around Bolt. He's fun. You get the feeling he has been deadly serious during these Games for exactly 65.79 seconds -- the time it took him to complete the 100 and 200 and the entirety of Jamaica's record-setting 4x100 relay (36.84 seconds) on which he ran the blazing anchor leg. The rest of the time he seems to have had a ball, whether with the Swedish women's handball team or the media. After winning the 200, he entertained even the most whimsical questions, about switching sports to cricket, about what sort of woman appeals to him, and he finished up by urging his fans to follow him on Twitter.
Can you imagine Phelps being that playful? While Bolt seemed to relish the Olympic ride, Phelps appeared to want nothing so much as to see it end. He was polite and relaxed throughout the swimming competition, but he clearly had one eye on the door. That's understandable; Phelps has been through four Olympics, the last two under incredible pressure and scrutiny. No one can fault him for wanting to exhale. But Bolt wants to be memorable while Phelps can't wait to be a memory. There's a difference.
Perhaps in time we will come to see Bolt the showman as Bolt the hot dog. His brand of preening and posing doesn't have the longest shelf-life; ask American athletes like Terrell Owens and Chad Ocho ... er, Johnson about that. Already his post-200 comments about losing respect for Carl Lewis and being incredibly impressed with himself -- "I am now a legend. I am also the greatest athlete to live," he said, -- reveal an angrier, more self-absorbed side that isn't quite as endearing.
So it could be that our obsession with Bolt will be like one of his races -- thrilling and intense, but relatively brief. Maybe our fondness and admiration for Phelps will be longer lasting. But when you think back to London 2012, the first thing you'll remember is that heat, that jolt, that stopped you in your tracks. And you'll know who it came from.