They had wondered if he was ready, rumours of injury, speculation over his commitment to training, his wavering form. But when that gun went in the Olympic Stadium, Usain Bolt delivered a weighty blow to anyone who had doubted or questioned, or thought they might beat him.
An Olympic 100m record of 9.63sec. The 25-year-old Jamaican had to work for it but he was always ahead and the result was never in danger of being anything else. Yohan Blake, the world champion, took silver, equalling his personal best of 9.75, with Justin Gatlin third in 9.79 displaying a miraculous return to the sport following his ban. At the finish Asafa Powell, the former world record holder who has never won a global title, looked inconsolable.
Ahead of the final, on the warmup track, Blake and Bolt joked together as though back on the training ground at their Kingston track. Bolt toyed with the camera that spied on them leaping left and right, in and out of vision, with seemingly boundless energy as though he had forgotten he was about to attempt to defend the first of his Olympic titles. So the story goes he had been the same ahead of the Beijing final, rolling around play-fighting with his agent on the floor. Fine-tuning their blocks, the three Jamaicans took time out to embrace one another.
In the semi-finals all of the lead contenders turned on the speed, with Gatlin qualifying for the final in the fastest time. The American reflected the traditional stance of sprinting machismo: angry on the line, intense, he saluted the crowd, then blew himself out of the blocks to finish in 9.82. His reaction was pure aggression, clenched fists, energy and bumping chests, while Powell – comprehensively beaten into third place behind Churandy Martina – wandered away biting his lip.
Next up came Bolt, the mystery man who had kept everyone guessing as to his form. Crossing the line in 9.87, wagging his finger at the doubters, he responded to the world’s questions. Like a knife through butter, his run was easy, languid, meeting little resistance. Of all the semi-finalists, he looked the most comfortable. Britain’s Dwain Chambers tried to keep pace with him up to 40m but when the Jamaican accelerated no one could get anywhere near him. His burst of speed gave such momentum that almost as soon as he was ahead he seemed to slow down again, glancing right and left, before leisurely crossing the line.
Blake’s performance nestled between his two forerunners. Relaxed, but retaining a tension that Bolt had not shown, Blake won his semi-final in 9.85, the second-fastest qualifier. In third place Britain’s 18-year-old Adam Gemili finished in 10.06, 0.01 outside his lifetime best and 0.02 off making the final as one of the fastest losers.
The first round of the men’s 100m had given little away. Whereas Bailey ran his heart out to win in 9.88, the fastest first-round time at an Olympic Games, preceded by a similarly aggressive run from Gatlin winning in 9.97, Bolt kept his cards close to this chest, posting the slowest winning time of all seven heats in 10.09. Bolt blamed his start, stumbling out of the blocks but – his first few strides aside – he looked to be running easy. Turning to watch the clock over the last 30m, he practically strolled across the line. Asked how he would do in the final he said: “We’ll see.”
Blake ran harder, winning in 10 flat, but was similarly determined not to give anything away as he attempted to dodge the mixed zone and hurry back to the athletes’ village. The one element which almost all of the sprinters could agree on was the speed of the track. “Super fast,” Gay said.
So, what to conclude? Very little. Though that did not stop the commentators from trying. “The first thing that stood out was a different Usain Bolt,” said the former 200m and 400m Olympic champion Michael Johnson. “He is extremely relaxed and there is a lot more to come from him. I wonder if he is trying to cover something up, we have not learnt much from this but we will. He is in good position to defend his title though.”
Others reported that Bolt was nervous, which seemed to be stretching the truth somewhat. He did not strike his trademark “To the Wworld” archer’s pose but he still clowned around, smoothing his hands over his scalp, mock-styling his hair.
The rush to give the definitive analysis had been going on all season, rumours fuelling speculation and talk of smokescreens. In the media some wrote repeated stories questioning Bolt’s state of fitness, documenting his trips to visit Dr Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt in Munich, suggesting a flare-up of the chronic back problem that plagued his early career.
The Jamaica team doctor suggested Bolt was emotionally shaken up, psychologically affected, by the car crash that mangled his BMW while driving home in the early hours after a night out in Kingston nine weeks ago. Sources close to his rivals sniped that Bolt had not been applying himself as much this season: too much partying, not enough training, resting and recovering – an opinion that Bolt seemed to echo following his slowest 100m performance, outside of championship heats, running 10.04 in Ostrava.
But after posting 9.76 – the fastest time recorded into a headwind – in his next race, it was hard to know quite what to conclude. Bolt’s coach, Glenn Mills, said his protege had been doing a lot of travelling around Europe and it had affected his form; in contrast Blake crossed the Atlantic only once this summer, competing in Lucerne two weeks ahead of London 2012.