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Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt has spent three years proving that he can dominate the struggling sport of track and field with his transcendent performances and megawatt presence. In a sport in which even gold medalists live and work in obscurity, he is a global celebrity. Last weekend in Daegu, South Korea, at the 13th world championships, Bolt went beyond even that and overtook the entire meet by not running in his championship final.
In Sunday night's final of the 100 meters—the event in which Bolt, now 25, won the 2008 Olympic gold medal and the '09 world title, lowering the world record from 9.72 to 9.58 seconds—the world's most famous runner false-started and was disqualified from the race. Under a rule adopted by track's international governing body in 2010, any starter who jumps the gun even once is tossed out. (The previous rule, in effect from '03 through '09, charged the first false start to the field and disqualified an individual for the next one.)
Even as Bolt's countryman Yohan Blake, a precocious 21, won the race in 9.92 seconds (Walter Dix of the U.S. was second), the Bolt Affair overtook the meet. He returns to the track on Friday in the opening round of the 200 (in which he is also the Olympic and world champion, and world-record holder) and will run on Sunday on Jamaica's 4 × 100-meter relay team.
Bolt had struggled with a back injury in 2010 and had not run at his best in '11. But in Daegu he looked very good in his quarterfinal and semifinal heats, sprinkling the air with promise. When Bolt is on, his races are performance art, and when he was pulled from the race, the stadium—the meet, the sport—collectively slouched. "It took some air out of me," says injured U.S. sprinter Tyson Gay, the second-fastest man in history, who was sitting in the stands for the race.
Almost immediately the controversial rule came under fire—although not from Bolt, who did not comment after the race except to tell reporters who followed him off the track: "Looking for tears? Not gonna happen." Most pointedly, bronze medalist Kim Collins of Saint Kitts-Nevis said, "At least give one false start to the field. In fairness to the people of the world. They want to see [Bolt]. The show must go on. One simple mistake and he's gone."
In the aftermath of the DQ, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) took the unusual step of releasing a statement that first said it was "disappointed" that Bolt had false-started, then pointed out that the rule in question could be changed at any time. As of Monday night in Daegu no action had been taken, but the possibility alone demonstrated Bolt's significance to the sport.
The false-start rule was initially altered at the behest of broadcasters who disliked being at the mercy of delays that resulted from multiple false starts in sprints and hurdles. The 2003 rule was a modification of a rule that allowed every starter a single false start. There was wisdom in the '03 change, but it's perilous—borderline foolish—to continue doing business with a rule that could result in losing the sport's only crossover attraction before he gets a chance to perform.
The Daegu situation was further complicated when media—led by the U.S. running website letsrun.com—analyzed Bolt's false start and concluded that Blake actually flinched very slightly just before Bolt did. "They could have thrown him out too," says NBC analyst and four-time Olympic sprint medalist Ato Boldon. It is unclear whether Bolt's jump (remember, he wasn't saying) was in reaction to Blake's flinch, but Bolt's best performances have begun with explosive starts that seem impossible for such a tall man. As long as he attacks starts with such abandon, and as long as the rule exists, Bolt will flirt with it.
His removal from the 100 meters also left his fitness an intriguing unknown. "I think he was going to run in the 60s," says Bolt's longtime coach, Glen Mills, meaning the 9.60s, which only Bolt and Gay have ever done. In Bolt's formal statement he said only that he was ready to run fast.