There are Olympic champions, and then there is Usain Bolt.
Bolt, you see, is as much showman as sprinter – the Muhammad Ali of this generation – and he knows how to build to a big finish.
On Sunday, in a race that he seemed perfectly poised to lose, he ran the second-fastest 100 meters ever recorded, only 0.05 seconds off his own world record. That time of 9.63 seconds won him a gold medal, with countryman Yohan Blake taking silver and American Justin Gatlin taking bronze. But really, it was just the warm-up act.
In winning the 100 meters, he defended his Olympic title from Beijing. If he can do the same on Thursday, winning the 200 meters for a second consecutive Games, he will become the first Olympian ever to do that double twice in a row, and we all might just have to reopen that whole greatest-Olympian-of-all-time argument.
Sunday's race, Bolt said, was only "one step closer to being a legend."
And being a legend? "That's it. That's my goal."
When Michael Phelps was going about building his legend in Beijing, not even the CIA could have gotten him to state it so plainly. His goals, Phelps said, were between him and his coach alone, and nothing short of thumbscrews would get them out of him. But here is Bolt, bold as his name, hanging his dearest wish out there like a porkchop in front of his competitors and – perhaps worse – the media. Building drama. Adding pressure.
In short, being the showman.
Posing 'To Di World'
And that is why, when he first entered the cafeteria in the Olympic Village here in London, he got a standing ovation. That is why, when Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce, two-time Olympic 100 meter champion, goes to the grocery store at home in Jamaica, people ask her if she knows Usain Bolt. That is why towheaded British schoolgirls in the Olympic Stadium strike Bolt's "To Di World" pose when the camera finds them, arm drawn back like an archer.
How many other athletes even have their own pose – much less one known from Westminster to Ouagadougou?
Bolt confesses in the post-race press conference that he is upset that, as each runner was being introduced before the race, Blake did a much better routine for the camera. I was like, "How am I going to top that?"
This was what was going through his head one minute before the 100 meters at the London Olympics.
But wait until you hear what was going through his head during the race.
A glance at the clock
With 25 meters left, he said, he looked over at the clock and thought about his world record, "but by then it was too late."
Let us note here that: 1) He looked over at the clock during a 9.63 second race, and 2) he is implying that, if he had thought to look over earlier, he might have set a world record. Perhaps it is just bluster, but Ted Williams once talked of being able to choose whether he wanted to hit the top or the bottom half of the baseball. Usain Bolt, apparently, thinks he can decide mid-race while running at 27 miles per hour whether he will set a world record or not.
The point is, to Bolt, these seemed missed opportunities to entertain. And that is why we love him: because he loves us. In a very real way, every time he races down the track, he brings us along.
"I enjoy showing the crowd the joy that I get in doing this," he said. "The crowd plays a very important part in my performance."
For many Olympians, it is the reverse. Big crowds, big cheers, and big expectations add to the burden of performance. For Bolt, they are stimulants. The Olympics are not a chance to fail before millions of people – they are a chance for more people to watch the show, more people to be invited to the party.
Time to 'wake up!'
There is a flip side to that. In the three years between the 2009 world championships, where he set the current world record, and this summer, Bolt's results were uneven. To put it in his words, he fell asleep. Then Blake beat him in both the 100 and 200 meters in the Jamaican Olympic trials this summer, and it was like a "knock on the door, saying, 'Usain, this is an Olympic year, wake up! I'm ready, are you?' " Bolt said.
Now, we know he is ready. In winning the 100 meters, Bolt beat an all-star cast. Had countryman Asafa Powell not pulled up injured, it would have been the first Olympic 100 meters in which all runners ran sub-10-second times. Put another way, the silver medalist in Beijing finished in 9.89 seconds. On Sunday, that would have been sixth.
"These guys are stepping their games up," Bolt said.
But Bolt, too, has stepped up his, apparently because we are here to watch.
And that is what legends do.