RIO de JANEIRO — Maybe, in the dawn before time, there was a human specimen who, racing away or toward the likes of sabertooth tigers or wooly mammoths, could run for all he was worth and do it really, really fast.
For now, we have Usain Bolt.
Adding to his legend, Bolt roared to gold in the men’s 100m Sunday night at Olympic Stadium, crossing the line in 9.81 seconds.
American Justin Gatlin was second, in 9.89. Canada’s Andre de Grasse was third, in a personal-best 9.91.
The gold completes Bolt’s Olympic 100m three-peat, after London 2012 and Beijing 2008. In seven Olympic finals, he has seven golds — with the 200m, his speciality, and the 4×100 relay yet to come here in Rio.
If Gatlin had won Sunday, we would all be telling a story of redemption — about how a guy came back to win at age 34 after well-chronicled time off for doping matters.
If the 21-year-old de Grasse had won, we would all be talking about how Bolt’s time had come and gone, and the new guys were now the big thing. At last year’s world championships in Beijing, deGrasse tied for third with American Trayvon Bromell, also 21, behind Bolt and Gatlin. Bromell took eighth Sunday, in 10.06.
If Bolt’s Jamaican teammate, Yohan Blake, had won — the way Blake did when Bolt was disqualified after false-starting at the 2011 world championships in South Korea — we would be talking about how it is that the lesser Jamaican star managed to upstage the big guy. As if. Blake got fourth, 9.93.
In Rio, Sunday marked what is very likely to be a three-part Bolt show. Again. The 200m heats start on Tuesday. The 4×100 relay final is set for Friday.
“Yeah, definitely,” he said after the 100, one down, two to go, “that’s the plan. I’m ready.”
Before Sunday’s 100m final, Bolt winked for the cameras. Then he did a little shimmy. Then he put his fingers to his lips, to shush the crowd.
Then he went out and did what he does better than anyone in modern history.
After which he put on a yellow baseball cap, backwards, and did his to-the-world thing, the cameras clicking, the crowd roaring.
To be perfectly clear about one thing:
In winning the race, Bolt did not emerge, Christ the Redeemer-like over the stadium, as the savior of track and field.
That was the nearly full moon up there in the winter sky, not any sign of heavenly ordination.
What is indisputable is this:
From the moment he burst onto the scene in 2008, Bolt has been a worthy champion. The 9.63 in Beijing, the world-record 9.58 in Berlin at the championships the next year, the six golds at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, the multiple medals at worlds, the dancing, strutting, joking, all of it.
Because Bolt does his to-the-world thing and because he genuinely can be funny and, not incidentally, because track and field is desperate for star power, he has morphed into some sort of larger than life vessel into which far too many people have poured absurd expectations.
Bolt, mostly, cheerfully plays along. His public persona is readily defined: he’s everybody’s buddy.
Bolt is the guy who walks around the stadium after Sunday’s race with a stuffed Rio 2016 mascot doll, blowing kisses.
Who clowns with whoever it was inside the Berlino the bear costume, the 2009 mascot (still the best-ever track and field mascot), to the delight of the cameras and the crowd.
Who gets run into at last year’s worlds in Beijing by a dude on a Segway, and laughs it off.
To attend a news conference with Bolt is often an exercise in sublime idiocy — from the press, not Bolt. After his 100m victory in London, he was photographed with three members of the Swedish handball team. That prompted: which does he like better, the Swedish team or handball players from other Scandinavian nations?
Before things got underway here, a Norwegian journalist took the mic to say that he didn’t really have a question. Instead: “I just want to say I love you, man.” Then he serenaded Bolt with a little rap: “Usain Bolt, you’re my favorite guy. I’m loving your moves and your feet and your style.”
What no one asks, because it has become clear that time is the only measure of the truth, is whether Bolt has — through all these years — truly, genuinely run clean.
He has passed every test.
So did many others in track and in other sports who later ran afoul of the rules.
The Jamaican testing program over the years? A joke.
So we are left with Bolt’s word — or his words, which tend to be facile and funny.
Those are two of the three f’s for you that complete the Bolt package. He is, as he proved again Sunday, fast.
Just to get into Sunday’s final, you basically had to run a 10-flat or under.
Bromell, at 10.01 in the semis, was the last guy in.
In his semi, Bolt went an easy 9.86. DeGrasse: 9.92.
In the next heat, Gatlin also shut it down early and still went 9.94.
Last year, at those Beijing worlds, Gatlin ran fast in the semi — too fast, 9.77. When the final came around, Bolt went 9.79, Gatlin 9.80.
Last year, Gatlin had Bolt beaten — Gatlin, who has a great start and first phase, usually wins the first half of the race — but couldn’t hold his form as they charged toward the line.
This year, just as in last year’s race, Gatlin broke early and hard. He held his form. But it was not enough.
Déjà vu all over again: Bolt caught Gatlin maybe halfway, then surged to victory.
“It’s about execution,” Bolt said afterward.”I know what it takes.
“We have been through this year after year. I know the work I have to put in. I knew — this year, I was in much better shape,” adding, “For me, all I had to do was execute and I’d be fine.”
More than fine. Again, the best. Without doubt, the fastest ever.