Track and field was dead, make no mistake about that. This was during the first week of the Olympics last summer in Beijing.
There was a time when this pause between the opening ceremonies and the start of track and field was flush with anticipation, for track was the heart of the Games. It was the primeval essence of sport -- running, jumping, throwing -- contested in the glow of the torch. The reopening of the Olympic Stadium would always energize an Olympic city that often had begun to slouch under the weight of seemingly endless competition.
This was categorically not the case in 2008, because track and field had been in shambles almost since the end of the 2004 Olympics in Athens, mired in a long succession of steroid cases that left every performance -- and every performer -- under a dark cloud of suspicion. In the days when Phelps was breaking world records and winning any one of his eight gold medals, there was little anticipation of track and field commencing (except to track fans, who have endured tirelessly, in an impressive show of dedication or naiveté, or both). It was just another sport, like fencing or sailing. No less vital, and surely no more.
Into this tableau came
Soon that was all forgotten. On the night of Aug. 16, Bolt won the 100 meters in a world record 9.69 seconds despite shutting down in celebration at least 15 meters from the finish line, turning to face the seats and thumping his chest with his right hand. In the days following the race there would be much debate (all of it valid) over whether Bolt had dishonored his sport or his opponents, but there was no question Bolt had exploded out of his tiny niche-sport box and into mainstream stardom.
Four nights later he ran every step of the Olympic 200 meters, even dipping ceremoniously at the finish, and won his second gold medal while running 19.30 seconds and breaking
In the shadow of Michael Phelps, on the biggest stage in international sports, Bolt made track and field relevant again. And track should be relevant -- it is among the most global of sports, contested by millions of young athletes who embrace the purity of effort and the simplicity of scoring. (Run fastest, you win). Public affections will ebb and flow. Today snowboarding, tomorrow softball. But track deserves better than to live forever in the ghetto of suspicion and whimsy, marginalized to the level of the sporting flavor of the month. It deserves a rock-solid place among the most valued sports on the planet. To regain this footing, it needs many things, but nothing more than a transcendent star whose image becomes the screensaver for the next generation.
For a week in Beijing, Bolt was all of this. He jumped on the gurney, straddled a dying sport and applied paddles to its chest, giving it life. There is no guarantee that Bolt's influence has legs, and if he should be found guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs, like U.S. sprinters