Track and field was dead, make no mistake about that. This was during the first week of the Olympics last summer in Beijing. Michael Phelps was winning a gold medal and setting a world record every morning in China (every night in the U.S.) and transforming the Games into his own personal mini-series. TV ratings raced upward and the rest of the events were dwarfed like some sort of worldwide jayvee game. Across a wide pedestrian concourse from the Water Cube where Phelps performed, the Bird's Nest sat empty, awaiting the start of the track and field competition, which would come seven days after the torch was lit.
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 Usain Bolt. He was hardly an unknown before the Games, having broken the 100-meter world record at a meet in New York City in late May. But unlike Phelps, Bolt's celebrity was confined to his own sport's narrow world. He was a phenomenon, to be sure, a 6-foot-5 sprinter whose long, sudden strides gave the impression that he was contesting another race from his opponents. But he had been full of potential since he was a teenager in his native Jamaica, and yet even as he ascended he was inconsistent. Just two weeks before the Games he had lost a 100-meter race to his countryman and friend, Asafa Powell. Conversation heading into the Games centered not just on Bolt, but on the 100-meter race among Bolt, Tyson Gay of the U.S. (the defending world champion) and Powell.
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 Michael Johnson's 12-year-old world record of 19.32, a mark tracknuts considered unassailable in Johnson's lifetime. In the aftermath Bolt danced around the track and shot imaginary lightning strikes into the sky. The stadium rocked. No man had ever won both the Olympic 100 and 200 in world-record time, but that just scratches the surface of Bolt's impact.
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 Marion Jones and Justin Gatlin, among others, the game is over for him and for his sport. But for now the sport lives because of one young sprinter. For that achievement alone, Bolt deserves to be Sportsman of the Year.