BEIJING (Reuters) - Athletics desperately needed a new hero. It now has one.
With a burst of pace, a swagger and a huge slice of showmanship, Usain Bolt seduced a packed Olympic Stadium even as he smashed the men’s 100 meters world record and coasted to gold.
The Bird’s Nest stadium came to its feet as the athletes emerged. Then, as they settled on their blocks, there was a hush.
A helicopter flew overhead, the sound of its blades mixing with the roar of the gas as it burnt in the Olympic cauldron.
The starter’s gun rang out. A surge of noise and adrenalin swept through the crowd, then gave way to open-mouthed admiration and finally, exhilarated laughter.
Within sight of the finish line, Bolt glanced once to his side, looked again, spread his arms wide, and almost skipped across the finish line, pounding his chest.
At 9.69 seconds, it was the fastest 100 meters ever, but the 21-year-old Bolt showed he can run faster.
“There was this deadly silence and then it was like -- go-o-o. We both yelled. I didn’t expect to but it just gripped me,” said 40-year-old German Christian Cohrs. “I saw this and thought, now I never have to go to another Olympic Games ever again.
“Nothing can top this.”
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It had been billed as a three-way contest between the world’s best sprinters. That contest never really emerged, such was Bolt’s dominance -- but it never mattered.
In truth, the 6 foot 5 inch Jamaican had looked like the winner from the moment he stepped up to the blocks in the semi-final just a couple of hours earlier.
Miming pistol shots with his index fingers, pointing at his chest as his name was announced, he oozed calm and confidence.
He crossed himself, looked to the skies, and, when the race began, cantered past the rest of the field.
Before the final, the show continued.
With the cameras on him, Bolt first pointed towards his mouth with a single finger, then there was another mime -- this time drawing back a bow and shooting a “lightning bolt” into the sky.
A ripple of laughter circulated around 91,000 crowd.
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“I was just having fun, that’s just me,” he said later. “I like to have some fun before the race to stay relaxed.”
The men’s 100 meters has been plagued by doping scandals since Ben Johnson’s spectacular fall from grace 20 years ago.
With Athens 2004 champion Justin Gatlin joining a long list of banned dopers and 2000 women’s champion Marion Jones jailed, the glamour had drained away from the Olympics blue ribbon event.
In a stroke, Bolt brought it back.
Cheesy American rock and mediocre movie-style background music had filled almost every moment of silence in the Bird’s Nest stadium as the evening’s athletics got under way.
Then, as Bolt celebrated his victory lap, it was replaced by reggae. A man who once had a reputation for partying hard and training gently, danced to the beat.
Every face in the crowd seemed to be smiling.
“I just like dancing, as you guys should have figured out by now,” Bolt said later, with laid-back Jamaican understatement.
His fellow sprinters could only shake their heads about Bolt’s performance, just five days before his 22nd birthday.
“I found myself accelerating away from the others,” said silver medalist Richard Thompson with a smile. “Then I saw him ahead of me, slowing down.
“He is such a natural athlete, I tip my hat to him.”
Bolt said he prayed to God every night, and had prepared for the race on Saturday with a long afternoon nap and a meal of “nuggets”. But he will not be partying just yet.
First he will race in what is supposed to be his favorite event, the 200 meters. Another gold is beckoning.
“Usain is insane!,” the bloggers are already declaring.
Make some room Michael Phelps, the Beijing 2008 Olympics has another hero.