HALF THE LONG straightaway remained on Sunday night in the final of the 100 meters, the eight sprinters rushing over the five Olympic rings painted on the homestretch of the blazingly fast pale-orange track. This was nearly the same spot on the oval where the U.K.'s Jessica Ennis and Mohamed (Mo) Farah had passed within inches of each other on the previous night, she with a heptathlon gold medal in hand, he about to chase (and win) one in the 10,000 meters. London's Olympic Stadium had trembled with emotion as the host nation won three gold medals in 46 minutes. Now in the middle of the 100-meter field, Justin Gatlin of the U.S. held a narrow lead over a fading Asafa Powell of Jamaica, but to his right was the looming presence of 2008 Olympic champion and world-record holder Usain Bolt of Jamaica; to his left was Bolt's countryman and training partner, the precocious Yohan Blake. The stadium shook again.
It is the singular quality of this moment that defines Olympic achievement. For all but a very select number of athletes—tennis players, basketball megastars—the Olympics are a stage larger than any they will inhabit in their lives. Weeks, months and years of solitary practice are rewarded—or not—with nations watching, rapt and expectant. So it is for even the one track athlete who transcends his sport's niche world of live streams, tape delay and word of mouth pulsing through the digital underground. Before London, Bolt, 25, who earns more than $10 million a year through endorsements, promotional fees and prize money, had run just three meets outside Jamaica in 2012—in Ostrava (Czech Republic), Rome and Oslo. He is very much at home on the biggest stages, devising complex pantomimes to entertain crowds, yet he walks those stages infrequently.
Here then, in any sprinter's seminal time, Gatlin saw open track in front of him with 50 meters left. He had gotten the best start in the field—not the fastest official reaction time, but the best early steps, what sprinters call their drive phase. NBC analyst Ato Boldon would tweet that Gatlin's first step "might be the best I've ever seen in a big race." Gatlin said afterward, "I wasn't going to sit back and say, 'This is the Bolt Show.' I came out here to win. But I also knew that Bolt was going to step up."
One lane to his left Gatlin could see a surging Blake, who had beaten Bolt in both the 100- and 200-meter races at the Jamaican Olympic trials. Then to his right Gatlin saw Bolt. But first he felt Bolt. "He's 6'5", and when his legs start lifting, you feel him," said Gatlin. At the beginning of the Olympic logo, Bolt was narrowly behind Gatlin; by the end of it, a distance of perhaps 15 meters, he was clearly in the lead. As Blake battled Gatlin, farther to the left Tyson Gay of the U.S. desperately tried to stay in medal contention but gained no ground.
Then came the instant at which the outcome was obvious and magnificent. Bolt eased away from Blake, Gatlin and Gay. "The last 50 meters," said the 22-year-old Blake, "that's when he decided to pull up beside me, and I said, 'Wow.'" The move was not as overwhelming as his breathtaking acceleration—or, technically, he slowed down more gradually than the other runners—in Beijing four years ago, when he ran off the world's television screens. But it was every bit as effective. He did not beat his chest as he had in China but instead clenched his teeth and hacked at the air with his fists. He thought about his world record of 9.58 seconds, set at the 2009 world championships in Berlin, only in the final strides. "Too late," he said. (But Richard Thompson of Trinidad and Tobago, who finished seventh in the race after winning silver in Beijing, said, "There's a high probability that he will break the record again, maybe even this year.")
The final time was 9.63, an Olympic record—Bolt's 9.69 in Beijing had been the old mark—and the second fastest in history. He towed behind him the swiftest collective 100: three men under 9.80 seconds (silver medalist Blake in 9.75 and bronze medalist Gatlin in 9.79), and seven of the eight finishers under 10 seconds for the first time in any 100.
In the afterglow of the win, Bolt treated the crowd of more than 80,000 (including Team USA basketball players Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and LeBron James) to the Full Usain. He did his To Di World pose (often called the Lighting Bolt, which it is not, and never has been). He held an Olympic mascot in his arms. He did a somersault on the ground in front of the bleachers. "He's a showman," said Gatlin. "And he puts on a great show."
IN THEIR transcendence of their respective sports, Bolt is easily compared to U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps. As in Beijing, the London Games took a sudden turn from a Phelps-O-Rama to a Bolt-O-Rama midway through, as if the swimming star had emerged from the pool, drenched and hyperventilating, and handed a baton to Bolt. Yet their personalities inside the arena are spectacularly different. The reserved Phelps prefers to sit alone with noise-canceling headphones affixed to his ears. "I wanted to share my joy with the crowd," said Bolt of his ebullient, crazy victory lap. In an interview with SI at the end of the 2011 season, Bolt had said, "People love that stuff. And it's my personality. That's just me."
Running that fast with everything at stake has earned Bolt the right to command the stage. Gay understands. Five years ago he was at the top of the sprint world, having won world titles in the 100 and 200 meters at the 2007 world championships. But the following spring Bolt, a promising 200-meter runner since his mid-teens, took up the 100 and overwhelmed the sport. After Gay's fourth-place finish on Sunday, he stood sobbing in front of the media, his shoulders heaving with emotion. "I gave it my best," he said. "Ain't nothing else I could do. I don't have excuses, man; I gave it my all. I feel like I let a lot of people down."
Gay was not alone in his devastation. LaShawn Merritt, the defending gold medalist in the 400 meters, ran only a few steps in his opening-round race and then pulled up because of a hamstring he had injured in Monaco two weeks earlier, the worst possible time.