At 8.59pm local time on a balmy Swiss evening here, the athlete in lane five settled into his starting blocks in the Letzigrund Stadion. The crowd, filling the compact arena to the brim of its 26,000 capacity, ceased their whistling, their roaring and their banging on the metal advertising hoardings and hushed to near silence. The starter's gun cracked the air and the men's 100m in the Weltklasse meeting was up and running. The Lightning Bolt was back in business.
Not that Usain Bolt seemed in any great hurry as he returned to his day job on the European track and field circuit, clocking on for the briefest of shifts in the penultimate Golden League meeting of the summer. Some two and a half hours earlier he could have hardly cut a more leisurely figure in his grey hoodie as he sauntered out of the back entrance of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, singing some reggae number to himself as he set off on the short stroll to the track.
On the start line, even before his name was announced – to thunderous cheers – he was bobbing, weaving and jabbing Muhammad Ali-style and pulling his bow and arrow pose. When the gun sounded, he floated out of his blocks with all the urgency of a butterfly – the ninth and last to set off down the track, with a reaction time of 0.193sec. Still, such is the potency of this 6ft 5in Jamaican phenomenon he did not even need to sting like a bee thereafter.
He hit the front at 30m, then slipped into neutral, crossing the line in 9.83sec – 0.16sec clear of Walter Dix, the Olympic bronze medallist – with his right palm stretched out flat, as if to say it was a so-so effort. As indeed it was, by the standards Bolt set in Beijing with his three world record-breaking, gold medal-winning runs. It was 0.14sec shy of the new global mark he set in the Bird's Nest while slowing down and celebrating in that unforgettable Olympic 100m final a fortnight ago. Still, to give some historical perspective, it was not exactly pedestrian. It matched the world record Carl Lewis equalled on the Letzigrund track 20 years ago.
"I'm trying to take it easy," Bolt reflected after completing his marathon hand-slapping circuit of the perimeter of the arena. "I'm stuffy and not feeling too well. I'm coming down with a cold, so I wasn't able to think of a faster time. I concentrated on winning. My coach told me that I should make sure I ended the season healthy.
"I tried to let the crowd enjoy it. I wanted to make them feel like they were in Beijing. I tried to do as much as possible because they support us as athletes and I am very thankful to them for coming to support us."
So there was no world record, no $50,000 bonus, and no gold bar to go alongside those three Olympic golds. There was no track record either. That still stands to Asafa Powell, the only Beijing finalist absent from the field last night. He clocked 9.77sec at the Weltklasse two years ago, equalling his own global mark. Times have moved on since then in every respect.
Powell, like the rest of the global sprinting fraternity, has been reduced to an also-ran by the outrageous high-speed deeds of his Jamaican team-mate. And the world of track and field has got what it so desperately craved: an antidote to the drip, drip effect that has drained public interest in the sport with each high profile positive drug test.
While Bolt was jetting into Zurich from Beijing on Monday amid a whirlwind of publicity, prisoner number 84868/054 was being quietly transferred from Carswell Prison at Fort Worth in Texas to a community correction centre in San Antonio. Back in 2000, when she was the golden girl of the Sydney Olympics, she was known to the world as Marion Jones. She is scheduled to be released next Friday after serving a six month sentence for lying to federal investigators about her steroid-taking activities. She will have 400 hours of community service to perform for the next two years.
Watching the super-fast, super-chilled Bolt these past two weeks, it feels as though his sport has been released from a jail sentence. Jacques Rogge – the straight-laced Olympic sailing veteran and former Belgian rugby union international who serves as president of the International Olympic Committee – might have sniffed at the Jamaican's exuberant post-race celebrations in Beijing, but the sight of a young Chinese man striking a bow and arrow pose for his girlfriend's camera in the Forbidden City on Tuesday was a telling illustration of the stunning impact the towering Caribbean phenomenon has made.
There was a further illustration earlier this week when the Jamaican Observer reported that for every Google search made last weekend for Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Ronaldinho, David Beckham and Tiger Woods, there were 7.5 for Bolt. He even outdid Superman 5-1 in the global popularity stakes. There were 7,776 hits for the superhero of fiction and 39, 216 for the chicken nugget-munching, gallery-playing superhero of the track – the Clark Kentish cricket-lover from sleepy Trelawny Parish who, when told that Michael Johnson had dubbed him Superman 2, responded in 007 fashion: "My name is Bolt, Lightning Bolt."
He has two more chances to strike before hanging up his cape for the season: in a 200m race in Lausanne on Tuesday, and in another 100m at the final Golden League meeting in Brussels on Friday. Then it will be back to Jamaica with his three gold medals. We can only pray that the party will have stopped by the time it comes to the 2009 track season and the build up to the World Championships in Berlin next August.
The chances are the Lightning Bolt will be even quicker by then. This summer his coach, Glen Mills, has got him to master the art of easing his giant frame efficiently around the bend in the 200m and up and running out of the starting blocks from the 'b' of the starting gun's bang in the 100m – last night excepted.
Getting him to master the art of fuelling his high-speed engine is likely to be the next area of improvement. "Yeah, my coach is upset about all the nuggets I've been eating," Bolt confided. "He said he is going to write a programme for my diet for next year."
That is for the future. For the time being, there is plenty still to digest and savour about this 22-year-old, 24 carat nugget of a sporting sensation.
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