FIRST COMES the shoe company publicist, rushing in from the Southern California sunlight to the refrigerated air and shadowy lighting of a Hollywood soundstage rigged for a photo shoot. Usain Bolt is on his way, she says. There is music playing: Jamaican reggae diva Patra's 1993 song Whining Skill, dance-mixed by D.J. Reggie Stepper and Super Beagle. This is good because Usain likes music while he works. Now others arrive at the studio: Two more men from the shoe company Puma and another who is working with Bolt on a video game. Then Bolt's British agent and his partner. Finally Bolt and Nugent (N.J.) Walker, a lifelong friend from the island who works as Bolt's personal manager.
Bolt surveys the massive room and makes eye contact. We have talked several times previously--sometimes in private, sometimes across the steel barrier that separates media from athletes at competitions. The track world is relatively small. Bolt points to his eyes and then at me, a little like DeNiro to Stiller in the Focker movies, though not menacingly. This moment of recognition is a source of relief to his entourage because a previous day's interviewer had flunked Bolt 101 by failing to know that Bolt had false-started out of the 100 meters at the 2011 world championships in Daegu, South Korea, and things had proceeded awkwardly from there.
We are in track and field's brief off-season. In the ensuing months many other interviews will be arranged with other athletes for other track stories, most through a single phone call or e-mail. But Bolt, 25, is different. Bolt is a record-smashing performance artist, an outsized animation of speed and personality that transcends not just his sport but all sport. He is, manifestly, a celebrity, the only one in his game. "Without Bolt," says U.S. shot-putter Adam Nelson, a three-time Olympian, "I suppose we have no sport."
In London, Bolt will attempt to become the first person to win the 100 and 200 at consecutive Olympics. His performances will not be soliloquies; Bolt was beaten by countryman Yohan Blake in both races at the Olympic trials. But whoever crosses the line first, the races will be characterized as having been won or lost by Bolt. He is the barometer by which the sport is measured. "Now he is Ali," says NBC analyst and four-time Olympic medalist Ato Boldon. "The Ali who lost to Frazier and then beat Foreman. He's going to lose every now and then, but then he's going to be even bigger because of those losses."
IN THE spring of 2008 track and field was approaching the abyss. Throughout the modern professional era (since roughly the late 1970s), there had always been a superstar to bring track into the public spotlight at least occasionally and make it a viable career option for lesser lights. British middle-distance runners like Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett gave way to Carl Lewis, who gave way to Michael Johnson, who gave way to Haile Gebrselassie, who gave way to Marion Jones and Maurice Greene. Yet as the '08 Olympics approached, the two biggest names in the sport were sprinters Tyson Gay, a reserved American who would soon begin accumulating injuries, and Asafa Powell, a wildly fast Jamaican with a record of shrinking on the biggest stage. Neither could carry the sport.
Meanwhile, that sport was losing meets. In 2007, before the global economic crisis struck, there were nearly 70 international competitions from late April to late September. "My early days on the circuit, in 2005, '06, '07, I could run a race every other day and nickel-and-dime my way to a decent living just with prize money," says David Oliver of the U.S., bronze medalist in the 110-meter hurdles at the Beijing Games. "I didn't even need [shoe/apparel company] sponsorship." A year later, in '08, there were barely 40 meets worldwide.
Into this void sprinted Bolt, a onetime prodigy (in 2004, at age 17, he had become the youngest man to break 20 seconds in the 200 meters) turned apparent underachiever. "I wasn't into practice," he says. "I wasn't really trying." Going into 2008, Bolt had run personal bests of 10.03 in the 100 (an event he'd contested infrequently) and 19.75 in the 200, but in '08 he became the fastest man in history at both distances. He twice broke the 100 world record, including in the Olympic final, in which he ran 9.69 seconds while famously celebrating before the finish line. Four days later in Beijing he pared .02 off Johnson's seemingly unassailable 200 record of 19.32. At 6'5", with strides of almost 10 feet, he made his races seem unfair.
And when those races were finished, Bolt became even more entertaining. He struck the To Di World finger-pointing pose he had taken from a Jamaican tourism campaign ("I made it 'Me, To Di World,'" says Bolt) and danced before and after his races. Track had seen showmen before: Greene was known for flexing and posturing before getting into the blocks. But track had never seen a showman who was also evolving the sport in record-destroying leaps. In a celebrity-centric culture it was an incendiary combination.
At those Beijing Olympics, NBC had just begun to contemplate a possible Michael Phelps ratings hangover (swimming takes place in the first week, track in the second) when Bolt took the stage. A surprising thing happened: The network's ratings among younger viewers, those aged 18 to 24, went up. "We saw an increase of 50 percent in the demographic during the second week," says John Miller, NBC's chief marketing officer. "We can't say for sure that all of that was Usain Bolt, but we feel that some of it was."
The phenomenon did not abate in 2009. Bolt broke both his records at the world championships in Berlin, lowering the 100-meter mark to 9.58 and the 200 to 19.19, both of which were unthinkable barely a year before.