The Big Man came flying, all alone, blue running track in front of him and his problems behind him. First there had been an embarrassing false start in the 100 meters and then a sensational comeback gold in the 200. Finally, on Sunday night on the anchor leg of the 4 × 100-meter relay, the final event of the 13th world track and field championships in Daegu, South Korea, Usain Bolt snatched the stick from his Jamaican teammate, Yohan Blake, and set sail for the finish, 100 meters away.
Think of the worlds as a graduate course in Olympic preparation. They are where athletes gather in the year before the Games to study for the work that lies ahead. They are Olympics Lite, with medals awarded, flags raised, anthems played and gallons of blood drawn for drug testing. And while a world championship is a title to be treasured, it is a little bit like winning the AFC and losing in the Super Bowl. No, I never won an Olympic gold medal, but you should have seen me in Daegu back in '11. ... The worlds are where plans are formulated and lessons learned.
One lesson from Daegu was that doubling up on events can enable fame, or endanger it, as U.S. sprinters Carmelita Jeter and Allyson Felix discovered. Another was that some 2012 gold medals are already spoken for. Like the one for Kenyan 800-meter runner David Rudisha, whose silky gait looks as if it were manufactured in a stride factory. "His skill set is not like anything we've seen," says former 800-meter world-record holder and two-time Olympic 1,500-meter gold medalist Sebastian Coe of Great Britain. "He has no holes in his game."
Or the one for Australian 100-meter hurdler Sally Pearson. She hasn't lost a race since August 2010 and last Saturday night won the Deagu gold medal in 12.28 seconds, which made her the fourth-fastest woman in history and the fastest in 19 years. "I knew that my body was in shape," said Pearson after the race last Saturday night. "So I let it do the talking, and it wanted to run fast."
But at the core of this year's worlds were two distinct track meets: the one in which Bolt became Bolt again and the one in which Team USA, led by sprinters Jeter and Felix, showed that it can still devour a medal table.
First Bolt. He is not simply the biggest name in track and field; he is the only name in track and field for all but hard-core fans, famous as much for what he does just before the gun as after it (the long, choreographed routine: slicking his eyebrows, shooting the lightning bolt pose, tossing off martial arts moves and, in Daegu, flashing a hand gesture from the movie Too Fast Too Furious). "He's the guy who makes average people watch track and field just to say they saw him," says NBC analyst and four-time Olympic sprint medalist Ato Boldon. "And he is the only guy in the sport like that."
People barely saw him at all on Aug. 28, when he was disqualified from the 100 meters for the most famous false start in the sport's history. He was angry and petulant on that night, but four days later he returned to the track in the opening round of the 200 meters and said, simply and contritely, "It was my fault."
There was more at work with Bolt than one brainlock. He had not been sharp since shortly after breaking his own world records in the 100 (9.58 seconds) and 200 (19.19) meters at the 2009 worlds, and he shut down his 2010 season in August with a back injury that delayed his training for '11. He hadn't run faster than 9.88 for 100 meters or 19.86 for 200 this year, and that makes his performance in the 200 in Daegu even more remarkable.
A cautious Bolt sat in his blocks (his gun-reaction time of .193 of a second was the slowest in the field) but then ran down Walter Dix of the U.S. before leaving the curve. "I tried to beat him on the curve, and I didn't do it," Dix said after the race. "And then I couldn't catch him." Once on the straight, Bolt gradually drew away. He began grimacing 50 meters from the finish, baring his teeth and hacking at the warm air with his long fingers, before crossing the line in 19.40 seconds, the fourth-fastest time in history. (He now has three of the top four; Michael Johnson of the U.S. has the other). "It wasn't a perfect start, and it wasn't perfect technique at the finish," Bolt said afterward. "But I ran as hard as I possibly could. I'm proud of myself."
Now, less than 24 hours later, he opened up in the homestretch of the relay. Behind him, U.S. third leg Darvis (Doc) Patton lay sprawled on the track after colliding with massive Great Britain anchor Harry Aikines-Aryeetey, making it the third consecutive time that the U.S. has failed to complete the 4 × 100 in a global championship (2008 Olympics, '09 worlds, '11 worlds; Patton has been involved in all three miscues), the latest in a litany of U.S. relay problems that date back more than two decades.