Usain Bolt is in the house, trying to turn a third Olympic Stadium on a third continent into his house, electrifying Rio like he did London and Beijing before it.
The Jamaican breezed through the first round of the 100 meters, the signature event of the signature competition (athletics) of the Olympics. He rang up a time of 10.07 to easily qualify for the semifinals, which will be held at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday. The finals are scheduled for 9:25 ET.
Bolt essentially jogged through the second half of the race, looking around to see if anyone could even challenge him. When Andrew Fisher of Bahrain began to inch up, Bolt simply sped up a little, essentially toying with a man who would finish in 10.12.
This was classic Bolt, laying down the psychological warfare and letting everyone here know that despite dealing with injury and inactivity he is still in control, still capable of much, much more.
“It wasn’t the best start,” Bolt said. “I felt kind of slow.”
Bolt is attempting the unprecedented — a third consecutive Olympic 100-meter gold — to extend his title as Fastest Man on Earth. That will require speed, for sure, but, with his 30th birthday in just eight days (August 21), this isn’t the same sure thing it was in the past. He is guarding against anyone thinking they have an edge on him. Sometimes races are won in the starting blocks.
As such, Bolt is sporting a clean-shaven head, a new look for him. It is done for a purpose.
“He told me he is trying to look younger,” competitor and friend Akani Simbine of South Africa said.
Will it work?
“Most definitely,” Simbine said. “He’s the King. If he puts it together, he’ll win.”
There are certainly plenty of runners who believe they can defeat him and are purposefully trying to ignore him for that reason.
“I don’t really get excited about racing Bolt,” said American Trayvon Bromell, who qualified for the semifinals with a time of 10.13. “I’m just here to do my job.”
There are others, however, who are more practical.
“I’m going to beat him,” said Rodman Teltull of the Pacific Island nation of Palau, who qualified for the semis, before breaking into a laugh. “… Ten years from now.”
Bolt already owns the world record of 9.58 and the Olympic record of 9.63. While he isn’t expected to challenge either of those marks, there really is no telling. He’s run sparingly prior to the Rio Games and no one is certain what he is capable of, perhaps even Bolt.
The goal now is to win by any measure possible. Gold is the goal.
His mere presence here thrilled what would otherwise have been a rudimentary morning of qualifying, likely in front of a half-filled, at best, grandstands. Instead, Olympic stadium was packed with a huge throng of fans just to catch a glimpse of him.
When his heat finally arrived at 12:37, stadium workers left their posts to crowd into staircases and concourses, craning their neck to see him run.
Bolt took the track and headed to the starting block to deafening roars, cell phone cameras held aloft, fans screaming at the mere sight of him. This was an almost nothing exercise with no drama, no risk, yet it was treated with more excitement than the finals of virtually any other Olympic event.
“Bolt! Bolt! Bolt!” they chanted.
Bolt held his hands above his head and clapped back at the Brazilians. So they roared some more, chanted some more, stomped their feet rhythmically. They went silent for the start, blew up after the gun sounded, then engaged in a collective gasp when he briefly hit his stride. When it was over, they shared high fives and celebrations that they’d been lucky enough to bear witnesses to such a spectacle.
The entire race, mind you, was a little more than 10 seconds long.
“He just steps onto the track and the crowd goes crazy,” marveled Simbine, the South African. “It was wild. He brings a whole different atmosphere.”
Later, after the session ended, hundreds of fans rushed the track and began posing for pictures out on the lanes, often mimicking Bolt’s signature celebration, the bow and arrow.
Track is a primal sport, straight out of caveman times (“Want to race?”). The 100 is the humble and honorable base of it all. Every nation, rich and poor, competes in this sport, the barriers to entry so simple. No need for uneven bars or swimming pools or sail boats or anything else. At some point in their life, every able-bodied-human on the face of the earth has tried to run fast. And every one of them has done it slower than this guy. There are no explanations needed here.
It’s part of what has made Bolt such a global hero. At 6-foot-5, he’s bigger than most. His starts are always a bit slow, but when that stride hits gallop it’s like nothing anyone has ever seen. As a bonus, Bolt has always understood his role as a showman and perhaps nowhere is that more appreciated here near the beaches of Rio.
“The crowd was great,” said American Justin Gatlin, who moved onto the semifinals with the day’s best time (10.03). “It’s the culture to party.”
In conservative Beijing, Bolt began celebrating before the finish line in the finals, a bit of bravado that was previously unfathomable to such a competitive event. The Chinese fans lapped it up even as it caused stick-in-the-mud bureaucrats like former IOC president Jacques Rogge to rip him for a lack of sportsmanship. For Bolt, that just cemented his legend.
In London, he faced the fastest field ever assembled, other athletes boasting that any of the eight men there could win. Instead, Bolt toyed with them all, Jamaicans and Americans, the clean and the dopers. When it was done, men such as Tyson Gay wept in frustration, knowing they’d given it everything and everything still wasn’t enough.
Some of those guys are back. Some new ones who grew up glued to the television watching him are here. Everyone will take their shot, but they all know who the star is, who the center of all the attention is. The King is the King until someone takes his crown.
“Hopefully tomorrow I’ll come out and I’ll feel much better,” Bolt said, reminding everyone this was no big thing, but the big thing is coming.
The Main Event is here. Let the Games begin in full.
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