Every four years, the Olympic Games gives the world's athletes an opportunity to seize sporting immortality. In return, the hallowed Games gift the world remarkable winners and gracious losers. The Olympics - more than any other sport event - breeds international heroes; and yet, there is alwaysa special one, an individual whose personal success transcends all the other athletes, whose triumph tells a privileged global audience they have just witnessed history being made.
See Jesse Owens in Berlin, 1936, Bob Beamon in Mexico, 1968, Michael Spitz in Munich, 1972, Nadia Comaneci in Montreal, 1976, Carl Lewis in Los Angeles, 1984, Cathy Freeman in Sydney, 2000. There is always one - it is the key ingredient in Games folklore. And there is one contest that forms the epitome on the world stage - the fastest man on Earth. Seasonal athletics popularity may have diminished amid never-ending doping scandals in recent years, but the men's 100m final remains every Games' keynote moment. For all Michael Phelps's glory in the pool, Usain Bolt's chest-thumping stroll to the 100m tape has become the Beijing Olympics' enduring image.
In China's Olympic summer of 2008, more than a billion people globally tuned in to the final to watch the Jamaica entrance Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium as he became the fastest man that ever lived. During the race, time stood still for the watching world. Bolt, however, did not. He clocked a world record time of 9.69secs. As he reached the line, everyone asked: "Did you see him slow down at the end?" before inner monologues took over: "How fast can he go?" Bolt, and Bolt alone, has the answer. "Personally I don't know," he says, adding: "Anything is possible."
For Bolt, 23 next week, it might well be. He's aware he slowed down in Beijing - the euphoria of beating his rivals to gold momentarily overpowering his race against time. His inner-drive and hyper-competitiveness mean winning is everything, records simply added extras. So, does "Lightning" Bolt believe a sub-9.50secs run is possible? "One day - that's the target," the Jamaican answers without a second's delay; he is, after all, a dealer in time.
Bolt's face is synonymous with that 100m triumph but his personal satisfaction lies elsewhere. He followed up his 100m win by breaking Michael Jonhson's 12-year-old 200m record - adjectives failing to level justice on a clock that stopped at 19.30secs. "It was the biggest thing for me at the Olympics. The 200m is my event and I had to do it," he said. The one record Bolt wanted, he got, and for a one-man race, it was extraordinary viewing.
With the field languishing well behind, Bolt maintained full speed all the way to the tape. There was no 100m-esque slow-up here. "For me it was the biggest event of my career and the result of so much hard work and dedication. It was very satisfying," remembers Bolt. Breaking such a record deserves a celebration to match, but according to the International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, Bolt's went too far - "disrespectful" was the Frenchman's judgement.
"It didn't bother me. I just go out there and perform," answers Bolt. He's right, when years of preparation yield success and Olympic immortality, pulling a few Caribbean dance moves is his right. There were no complaints from Bolt's fellow runners. They simply congratulated him and marvelled at his speed. Grievances were certainly not aired in Jamaica either; the all-night partying continued long after their idol had left the track. Bolt is the symbol of the island's recent domination in global sprinting, and he revels in the role.
"I see it is a responsibility," said Bolt, adding: "I just try to do well for my country and myself. I'm trying to make the sport a better place and one people look up to." Slowly but surely, that is happening. Not even the recent news that five Jamaican athletes competing in Lausanne tested positive for drugs has damaged athletics' mainstream renaissance. Forget the cheats, let them rot - the golden boy is clean.
"It's sad for the sport because it was getting on so well," Bolt said. "This is probably a step backwards because people start questioning everybody, especially from Jamaica, but it's not me so I'm not really worried. I'm clean, I'm just going forward." His next immediate step is the Berlin world championships where he will face-off against America's Tyson Gay in the men's 100m and 200m distances. While an injured Gay disappointed in Beijing, Bolt's only realistic rival in either discipline is on fire this year.
All season the pair have swapped fastest honours and upstaged each other in different events; opposing schedules and training programmes ruling out direct confrontation. Until now. Barring injuries, or unlikely disasters in qualifying, they're going head-to-head. "I guess it is the showdown of the year," said Bolt. "It is the major event of the season and I'm going there to win," he added. Bolt's the favourite, but the viewing public is hoping their rivalry sees split seconds shaved off times. However, for Bolt, the pursuit of records is secondary to beating Gay and the rest of the starting field. "Always a win, always," he said, tellingly.
It is a mentality which serves his "saviour of track and field" position well, but Bolt is also rapidly building a reputation as a global athletics ambassador. He regularly combines meets with community work, and tours schools and sports clubs to speak and encourage star-struck children during breaks in race weeks. Earlier this year, the Great City Games in Manchester gave Bolt several opportunities to impress. Not only did he make the customary call to local childrens, but he also set a world record in the 150m on a specially-constructed 'street athletics' track. His 14.35sec run is, officially, the fastest sprinting performance. Bolt covered the distance in an average of 10.45metres per second, faster than both the 10.319m and 10.36m per second averages he registered in the 100m and 200m, respectively, in Beijing.
"The track was fast and easy to run on and it just all felt so cool," he said afterwards. "It was great to be so close to the fans on the streets and I hope there will be more of this to come." Bolt is the one track athlete capable of returning sprint to its forgotten status at the pinnacle of global sports; individual sport's equivalent to football. Ironically, Bolt loves his football, and as a life-long Manchester United fan, he dovetailed his 150m heroics in the city with a visit to the Red Devil's Carrington training base.
The world's fastest man also passed on some sprinting tips to Cristiano Ronaldo, the World Player of the Year. However, no sooner had Bolt waved goodbye to United, so too did Ronaldo - lured to Spain by Real Madrid. "Football is all about business now and I guess it had to be done," he says of his favourite club's loss, adding: "But I'm not worried, we've got a good team and they'll all step up now."
Bolt has no choices in his wish-list for Ronaldo's replacement. "We don't need anyone in particular, just someone to score the goals," he laughs. From goals to golds, and after Beijing, Bolt will be hoping lightning strikes twice in Berlin. Whatever the weather in the skies above the Olympic stadium, the Bolt-Gay showdown should ensure there are sparks flying on the track. firstname.lastname@example.org