LONDON – Usain Bolt stood barefoot at the top of an Olympic Stadium staircase, craning his neck for a glimpse of the starting line.
The fifth heat of round one of the 100-meter race was about to take place – eight more guys with the dream, if not the ability, to chase down the reigning Olympic champ. Bolt just completed an easy victory in heat four, practically jogging in with a 10.09 to move into Sunday's semifinals.
Now he wanted to see who else would join him, perhaps the most telling sign of exactly how enormous the buildup to the 100 final has become.
Even the Lightning Bolt doesn't want to miss a moment of a humble preliminary round.
"I'm really looking forward to the semifinals tomorrow," Bolt said after coming down the stairs and watching the heat on a television in the bowels of the stadium.
The semis are at 2:45 p.m. ET. Bolt didn't mention the final, which will take place at 4:50 p.m. ET. It wasn't necessary; everyone is looking forward to that.
Bolt was so pumped, he brushed off a semistumble out of the blocks.
"We have come to the conclusion we shouldn't worry about the start," Bolt said. "We should just focus on the rest of the race, which we always do. So I am working the last 50 meters. That is my strong point. That is what I am focusing on."
The world will be focusing, too. Long before these Olympics began, anticipation centered on this 100-meter final, this furnace blast of speed like the world has never before seen. It is arguably the most hyped sporting event of the year.
The London bookmakers have seen virtually all Olympic betting focused on this one sprint while swimming, basketball, and even sports with British stars have been ignored.
Until prices soared out of nostalgia for Michael Phelps's final race Saturday night, Sunday's tickets were the most expensive on the secondary market (more than $2,000 for good seats), even though Olympic Stadium's 80,000-seat capacity is nearly five times that of the Aquatics Center.
Bolt, the 6-foot-5 hulk out of Jamaica and reigning gold medalist, remains the Games' biggest star, no matter what Phelps or Gabby Douglas or LeBron James accomplishes.
The 100 meters isn't merely a sport; it's a primal interest, perhaps our most basic form of competition – wanna race? It's universal; every nation, no matter how rich or poor, participates.
And it's as spectacular as ever because of Bolt's star turn in Beijing. It brought the sizzle back. Now there's a slew of blazing competitors looking to beat him.
"The whole eight" can win this race, said American Justin Gatlin, claiming the entire final's field will be able to fly. "It's just who's going to put on a great, most technical race. It's going to take a dominating race. You have to dominate from the beginning. Everyone's going to charge from the middle half of the race. And that's what it's going to take."
Much of the hype comes from the uncertainty. Bolt was defeated at the Jamaican national trials by Yohan Blake. Suddenly the champ was cut.
Blake, a burly blur on the track, ran an easy 10.0 on Saturday but owns the fastest time in the world this year at 9.75. In 2011, he became the youngest world champion ever at just 21.
Bolt and Blake will be pushed by countryman Asafa Powell (10.04 on Saturday), plus a trio of Americans in Gatlin, Tyson Gay, and Ryan Bailey, and two sprinters from Trinidad and Tobago, Keston Bledman and Richard Thompson. And who knows who else might show up in the final.
Great Britain's Dwain Chambers ran a 10:13 to move into the semis Saturday, but is merely a 500-to-1 shot in the local sports books.
"Good bet," he laughed.
Chambers knows who the star is here. He was in Bolt's heat and just tried to keep up, knowing it would be good enough.
"I just tried to let Usain drag me into the semifinals," Chambers said. "He's the quickest guy in the world. It's amazing. Words can't describe it."
The 100 meters isn't generally home to such humility. Part of the appeal is the oversize egos. The starting line is home to preening, pointing, and every look-at-me gesture imaginable.
Gatlin ran a 9.97 in heat two and the stadium public-address announcer declared him the first person to ever break the 10-second barrier in the first round – a mostly meaningless accomplishment. You could all but predict Ryan Bailey, standing on the starting line for the next heat, would hear that news and decide to smash it.
He finished at 9.88.
Bolt hardly needs to draw attention to himself, although he's been known to do that. Over the public-address system, he was introduced simply as "the fastest man in history."
The huge, sellout crowd roared. It's not necessary to say his name; to track fans, it would be redundant. Bolt has held the world record for more than four years, currently a 9.58 set in Berlin in 2009.
So as much as Bolt watched others, everyone watched him.
"He looked good," Gatlin said. "He looked like Bolt. I don't think there is anything scary or intimidating out there; it's the same thing he's been doing. He's going to come out there as a 9.6 Bolt, a 9.5 Bolt."
Can anyone touch a 9.5 Bolt? Actually, maybe so. This track is said to be fast. If nothing else, the challengers swear Bolt no longer holds an intimidation factor. His rivals are too experienced, too talented, too confident to allow him that advantage.
"He's the equivalent of, like, a guy walking on the moon," Gatlin said. "He's done something no one has ever done before. [When] you have to line up shoulder-to-shoulder with this guy, you're going to be in awe sometimes.
"So I think a lot of people, a lot of runners, almost have that audience mentality – they want to see what he's going to do. You have to run yourself. You have to block that out to compete against that guy."
Compete they will – first in a semifinal, and then in those epic finals. It's the hot ticket of London, the big bet in the books, the major TV draw of the Games.
The Lightning Bolt is back to defend his title, richer and more famous than ever. There's a throng of hungry contenders here who know that beating him when the world is watching would do the same for them.
Bring on the amazing race.More Olympics coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
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