LONDON – Until 11:45 p.m. London time on Thursday, Usain Bolt had achieved something even more remarkable than turning the Olympic Stadium track into his own personal drag strip.
He'd managed to be the most toweringly arrogant, endlessly cocky, thoroughly likeable guy in sports.
Then he nuked Carl Lewis.
There went the American vote, Usain. Hope the endorsement deals in Jamaica and Europe stay strong.
Bolt's run as the most popular foreign athlete in the United States – maybe ever, or at least in the argument – might have ended abruptly Thursday night. After winning his fifth career Olympic gold medal and second of the London Games, he veered out of his way in the 200-meter news conference to savage Lewis, who merely won nine gold medals for America during his brilliant sprinting-and-jumping career. Them's fightin' words.
Bolt was asked about the great sprinters of all time, with the names Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis mentioned. Bolt gave props to Owens then announced, "I'm going to say something controversial."
Did he ever.
"Carl Lewis, I have no respect for him," Bolt said. "The things he says about the track athletes are very downgrading. I think he's just looking for attention because nobody really talks about him.
"I've lost all respect for him. All respect."
Bolt was asked what caused him to lose respect for Lewis.
"All drug stuff," he responded.
Four years ago, when Bolt exploded in Beijing by winning three gold medals, Lewis specifically questioned Bolt's huge time drop in the 100 meters, from 10.03 to 9.69 in the course of a year.
"If you don't question that in a sport that has the reputation it has right now, you're a fool," Lewis said. "Period."
Back to the present and back to you, Bolt.
"For an athlete to be out of the sport and be saying that is really upsetting," he said Thursday night.
Actually, Bolt took a shot at Lewis earlier in the night in the media zone just off the track. There, he was asked a drug-related question that did involve the name "Victor Conte" but did not involve the name "Carl Lewis." Yet Bolt went there on his own.
"It's really amazing when people talk stupid stuff," Bolt said. "Lewis, nobody remembers who he is. … We [the Jamaicans] work hard, we push ourselves to the limit. I shouldn't even have to respond to that."
This could be the tipping point for Bolt. A guy with a huge approval rating and the most mesmerizing performer in sports just gave a whole lot of people a fresh reason to appraise him much more critically.
There was fresh reason to celebrate Jamaican speed Thursday, and fresh reason to question it. The tiny island nation swept the podium in the 200, with Bolt taking gold, Yohan Blake silver and Warren Weir bronze. That fulfilled Bolt's pre-race marching orders to Weir: "One, two, tree," he said, to accurately quote Weir's Jamaican diction.
[Video: Usain Bolt blasts into history]
One-two-tree, indeed. With the sweep in hand, the announcer at Olympic Stadium spoke the truth: "It's going to be a long night in Kingston tonight."
But in London, there were questions to be asked and answered. Blake was asked about a three-month doping suspension in 2009 after testing positive for a stimulant.
"In life," Blake said, "you have obstacles."
In an epic news conference Freudian slip, an American sports writer mistakenly started a question about the Jamaican track team by referring to the "Jamaican drug team." After the laughter in the room died down, the question was asked: Usain, are you sure your team is clean?
"Without a doubt," Bolt said. "We train hard. … We do our best to show the world we are clean."
Until going after Lewis, Bolt had shown the world that it's possible to be the world's fastest man, have the world's biggest ego and still be the world's most enjoyable athlete.
This is normally a toxic combination. We like our superstars humble – even if the humility is false. We've bred an entire generation of athletes who will throw no-hitters, rack up triple-doubles or score four touchdowns only to blandly chalk it all up to great teammates and good luck. That has become the accepted, recommended and even enforced method of analyzing one's own greatness.
Not Bolt. Hell no.
Maybe 20 times Thursday, he referred to himself as a "living legend," after becoming the first sprinter in Olympic history to win the 100 and 200 in consecutive Olympics. He agreed that he is now in the same category as Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan in the pantheon of global sports icons. He put himself on the same level as Bob Marley in terms of importance to Jamaica.
And yet it all worked. Why? Because Bolt is the blazing ambassador of fun.
Everything is a laugh with Bolt. Everything is a joke. He is true to Jamaican stereotype in his ability to smile in the face of stress.
Best example: Before the 200, with the stadium dripping tension, Bolt looked at the girl volunteer who was in charge of his lane on the track.
"You're nervous," he said to her.
"Yes," she answered.
"Why?" he asked.
"I'm so excited!" she responded.
"That's the thing I like to do," Bolt explained later. "I'll bump a fist for the person carrying my bag, to show appreciation. I know they're over the moon."
What American athlete would matter-of-factly acknowledge the fact that he or she sends The Common People over the moon? Bolt does it, and it's fine, because that's just who he is.
Of course, it's a lot easier to be a character and a showman if you can back it up. When Bolt was introduced to the crowd before the 200, he mimicked the queen's restrained parade wave; that was big-screen gold. Then he smoked Blake, Weir and the rest of the field.
Bolt has backed up the bravado every time he's run an Olympic race. He's 5-for-5, with a relay race still to go here.
There's nothing worse than a big talker who can't walk the walk. Or, in this case, run the run. Bolt can run the run.
But then Usain Bolt, lovable egomaniac, ran outside his lane. At the height of his glory he stooped to petty shots at an American track legend – not a great look for a champion, not a graceful end to a glorious night.
Now we'll see what the fallout will be. It's all glory and celebration in Kingston tonight, but how will killing Carl Lewis play in Peoria?
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