BEIJING — For a few brief moments Friday night, the World’s Fastest Man and the World’s Greatest Athlete were on the track at Beijing’s National Stadium at the same time, the former at the far end, preening and dancing and ostensibly preparing for a relay race that, in a few moments, would give him his third gold medal and third world record in a week — and the latter, not far from the finish line, on the verge of collapse, barely able to hug his wife, wrap himself in an American flag and take a mini-victory lap.
But then someone tapped Bryan Clay on the shoulder, and the newly minted gold medalist in the Olympic decathlon was ushered off the track so that phenom sprinter Usain Bolt and his Jamaican teammates could torch the field in the finals of the 4 x 100-meter relay, which was about to start.
Clay disappeared beneath the stands of the stadium known as the Bird’s Nest, and back into relative obscurity, as Bolt, with the track now cleared, delivered another revelatory performance — as electrifying in its own way as his record-setting wins in the 100 and 200 meters — to complete his rise from medal-hopeful whose fortitude on the big stage was still in question a week ago to a worldwide phenomenon whose outsized personality and sheer talent have blasted him into a rare stratosphere of stardom, practically overnight.
“All I can say is Yo, Jamaican sprinters (are) taking over the world!” Bolt said after the relay gold. “We’re taking over forever, forever.”
There is plenty of truth to Bolt’s nationalistic boasting, as Friday’s relay title comes on the heels of Bolt’s other two gold medals, plus Jamaica’s sweep in the women’s 100 meters (headed by gold medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser) and Veronica Campbell-Brown’s gold in the women’s 200. The string of sprinting success, however, was broken in the women’s 4 x 100-meter relay Friday night, when Sherone Simpson and Kerron Stewart botched their handoff, leading to a disqualification.
In the men’s relay, Bolt ran a blistering third leg for the Jamaican team, taking the baton from teammate Michael Frater and quickly opening up a chasm between himself and the field, before handing off to Asafa Powell, whose title of World’s Fastest Man — traditionally bestowed upon the 100-meter world record holder — Bolt inherited in May.
With Bolt following some 20 meters behind and cheering him on, Powell kept churning through the finish line, raising his arms in triumph when the time was posted — 37.10 seconds, .30 better than the previous world record, set in 1993 by an American quartet anchored by Leroy Burrell, and nearly a full second better than the runners-up from Trinidad and Tobago. The field was without the formidable U.S. team, which dropped the baton in Thursday’s qualifying heat and was disqualified.
“It was a great thing. I said to Asafa (before the race), ‘Can I do this?’” Bolt said. “And he said, ‘Don’t worry, mon. We got this.’”
Bolt is now prepared to reap the rewards of the megastardom he achieved this week in setting world records in both the 100 (9.69 seconds) and 200 (19.30), and doing so with a marketable personality and a theatrical flair complete with pre-race hand gestures and post-race dance moves.
Following the relay win Friday night, a spokesman for the Jamaican team said Bolt would be flying to Europe to run in a series of three meets, beginning next week in Lucerne, Switzerland.
“I think the money has gotten bigger,” the spokesman said, a reference to the appearance fees and sponsor fees Bolt can now command. “You have to take advantage. The window (for capitalizing) is small.”
Not so long ago, the Olympic decathlon champion would have a public profile not much below that of the top sprint champion. No less than King Gustav of Sweden first bestowed the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete” to 1912 decathlon champ Jim Thorpe, and the title helped create superstars out of subsequent winners like Rafer Johnson and Bruce Jenner, the latter of whom famously appeared on a Wheaties box following his win in Montreal in 1976.
These days, on the other hand — for reasons not exactly clear — the decathlon winner is largely an afterthought in track and field, which means Clay is unlikely to get anywhere near the same adulation and financial opportunities. At least he is able to laugh about it.
“I just want the Wheaties box,” he joked to reporters. “Put me on the Wheaties box.”
Clay, a Hawaii native, father of two, and the son of a Japanese-American mother and an African-American father, won silver in Athens in 2004, but endured injuries that knocked him out of both the national and world championships in 2007.
Over the course of nine events across two days — with four hours of sleep in between — Clay built a commanding lead, largely due to his prowess in the throwing events, and knew he would need most or all of that lead to survive the final event, the 1,500-meter run, which has always been his worst. Clay staggered across the finish line, well off the pace but fast enough to win by 240 points — the largest victory margin in an Olympic decathlon since the Munich Games if 1972.
“I was exhausted,” Clay said. “I had nothing in my legs. … My main concern was finishing the race and getting it all done, and being at the top of the podium.”