LONDON — Lining up for the Olympic 100-meter final, Usain Bolt wrapped up his signature prerace preening by lifting a finger to his lips.
Time to silence the critics.
He might not be better than ever. Clearly, he’s back to being the best.
Pulling away from the pack with every long stride, Bolt surged after his typical lumbering break from the blocks and overwhelmed a star-studded field to win in 9.63 seconds Sunday night, the second-fastest 100 in history and an Olympic record that let him join Carl Lewis as the only men with consecutive gold medals in the Summer Games’ marquee track event.
“Means a lot, because a lot of people were doubting me. A lot of people were saying I wasn’t going to win, I didn’t look good. There was a lot of talk,” Bolt said. “It’s an even greater feeling to come out here and defend my title and show the world I’m still No. 1.”
Only sixth-fastest of the eight runners to the halfway mark, Bolt was his brilliant self down the stretch, his latest scintillating performance on his sport’s biggest stage. At Beijing four years ago, the 6-foot-5 Bolt seemingly reinvented sprinting and electrified track and field, winning gold medals in world-record times in the 100, 200 and 4×100 relay — something no man had ever done at an Olympics.
And the significance of Sunday’s sequel?
“One step closer to becoming a legend,” Bolt said. “So I’m happy with myself.”
Ever the entertainer, the Jamaican kept right on running past the finish for a victory lap that included high-fives with front-row fans, a pause to kneel down and kiss the track and even a somersault. Thousands in the capacity crowd of about 80,000 chanted the champion’s name: “Usain! Usain! Usain!”
Bolt’s training partner and Jamaican teammate, world champion Yohan Blake, won the silver in 9.75, and 2004 Olympic champion Justin Gatlin of the U.S. took the bronze in 9.79.
“It just feels good to be back,” said Gatlin, who served a four-year ban after testing positive for excessive testosterone.
“To be honest, I went out there to challenge a mountain. I went out there to challenge the odds. Not just myself and everything I’ve been through, but the legacy of Usain Bolt,” Gatlin said. “I had to go out there and be fearless.”
Everyone in the final broke 10 seconds except former world-record holder Asafa Powell of Jamaica, who pulled up with a groin injury.
At the last Olympics, Bolt announced his arrival on the global stage by winning the 100 with a then-record 9.69 seconds, even though he slowed down to celebrate by pounding his chest over the last 20 meters. That mark only lasted until the 2009 world championships, when he lowered the mark to 9.58.
But The World’s Fastest Man had been something less than Boltesque since then, in part due to a string of minor injuries to his back and legs.
In 2010, he lost to Tyson Gay, the American who’s a past world champion and cried inconsolably after ending up fourth Sunday in a time (9.80) that would have been good enough to win every Olympic 100 gold medal other than the past two.
A false start knocked Bolt out of the 100 at last year’s world championships, creating an opening for Blake. Then came recent, much-discussed losses to Blake in the 100 and 200 at the Jamaican Olympic trials.
Bolt, a fast runner who likes to drive fast, too, was involved in a wee-hours car crash in Kingston in June — not the only auto accident he’s been in. His publicist played down the seriousness of the latest episode, but the hand-wringing in Jamaica intensified after the poor performances at the trials a few weeks later.
“The trials woke me up. Yohan gave me a wakeup call,” Bolt said. “He knocked on my door and said, ‘Usain, wake up! This is an Olympic year.’”
“I had to show the world I’m the greatest,” he said.
If that hasn’t already been accomplished, Bolt sure is close. He will begin defending his title in the 200, which he considers his best event, in Tuesday’s heats. He’s also part of Jamaica’s 4×100 relay team, of course, and wouldn’t rule out taking part in the 4×400 this time, as well.
Some saw no reason to wait to see what Bolt does the rest of the way at these Olympics.
“There’s no doubt he’s the greatest sprinter of all time now,” said seventh-place finisher Richard Thompson of Trinidad and Tobago, who was 0.35 seconds back on Sunday.
Thompson was the silver medalist in Beijing, despite trailing Bolt by a hard-to-believe 0.20.
The margin Sunday was 0.12, and Bolt pushed all the way, making up for his usual slow beginning.
After he’d closed out his mugging for the cameras, even pantomiming spinning a record like a DJ, Bolt crouched into the blocks. Right before the starting gun, a plastic bottle was tossed from the stands and it landed on the track behind Blake’s lane. But neither Bolt nor Blake noticed.
“When they say, ‘On your marks,’ that’s when the focus starts,” Bolt said.
He took a while, as usual, to get up to top speed, but once he found his extra gear, no one else stood a chance, even though the men surrounding Bolt were an accomplished bunch. Once he found himself even with the leaders with about 50 meters left, Bolt did what he does best.
Cheeks puffing, arms pumping right along with each of those lengthy strides — Bolt is taller and leaner than the typical 100-meter champs of the past — he reeled in everyone else, even leaning at the finish for good measure.
“I stopped worrying about the start,” Bolt said. “The end is what’s important.”
Oh, and how he enjoyed what came next.
Bolt, who turns 26 this month, delivered the sort of scene he made so commonplace in Beijing: a look-at-me! series of photo ops, including dance moves fit for a nightclub and what he calls his “To the World” pose, when he leans back and points to the sky.
He hugged Blake, the guy Bolt nicknamed “The Beast” because of his intensity in practices.
Later, Blake tweeted: “Big up (at)UsainBolt! You deserved that one. Big up Jamaica!”
Gatlin didn’t begrudge Bolt’s enthusiasm.
“He’s the Michael Phelps of our sport,” Gatlin said, referring to the U.S. swimmer who has won a record 22 Olympic medals, 18 gold. “What can you say? He’s a showman. Is it arrogance? Confidence? It’s a good show.”
Bolt is not the most serious fellow, and he isn’t too proud to admit he never has put much emphasis on fitness. In 2008, he explained that his success was fueled by chicken nuggets from a fast-food restaurant in the Olympic village. This time around, he noted that he noshed Sunday on a sandwich wrap from the same chain.
“It was chicken with vegetables, so it was healthy,” Bolt said with perfect deadpan delivery. “Don’t judge me.”
The only judgments now are going to be about where Bolt stands in the pantheon of sprinters and Olympians.
Even LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and other members of the U.S. men’s basketball team wanted to get a glimpse of Bolt, arriving right as the 100 semifinals were getting started Sunday.
James even pulled out a phone to record video of Bolt in action.
“The whole world is going to watch this tonight,” James said. “This is the biggest event of them all, right here.”
There were other events on Sunday’s schedule, and Sanya Richards-Ross won the only U.S. gold at the track so far. She erased the bad memory of her bronze-medal finish in Beijing by accelerating down the stretch to win the 400 meters in 49.55 seconds.
Other winners were Ezekiel Kemboi of Kenya in the men’s 3,000-meter steeplechase, Krisztian Pars of Hungary in the men’s hammer throw, Olga Rypakova of Kazakhstan in the women’s triple jump, and Tiki Gelana of Ethiopia in the women’s marathon. Oscar Pistorius, the amputee “Blade Runner” from South Africa, finished last in his 400-meter semifinal but will get another chance in next week’s 4×400-meter relay.
Bolt’s victory in the 100 four years ago began a stretch of dominance by Jamaica, an island nation of 3 million people — about 1 percent as many as the U.S. — that now owns seven of the last eight Olympic men’s and women’s sprinting golds, including relays.
About 1½ hours before Bolt’s latest victory, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce stepped to the top of the medal stand in the stadium and received the gold she collected for Jamaica in the women’s 100 on Saturday night. Like Bolt, she’s a repeat champion.
Bolt gets the distinction as the only man to cross the finish line first in back-to-back dash finals. Lewis’ victory in Seoul in 1988, following his first 100 title at Los Angeles in 1984, was awarded only after apparent champion Ben Johnson of Canada was stripped for failing a drug test. Johnson hailed from the same Trelawny parish in Jamaica that is home to Bolt.
They already were set to party in that Caribbean country to mark 50 years since it became independent from Britain.
On Aug. 5, 1962, the Union Jack was lowered for the final time at Kingston’s National Stadium. Talk about perfect bookends: On Monday — which is Aug. 6, 2012, the 50th anniversary of the island’s independence — the Jamaican flag will be raised in London’s Olympic Stadium for Bolt’s medal ceremony.
“It’s an honor. I said after the trials I wanted to give Jamaica a great birthday present,” Bolt said, “and this is a good start.”
As these Olympics continue, though, remember this: Bolt specializes in fantastic finishes.