Bolt aspires to legendary status he rightly deserves

sfolwer@charlotteobserver.comAugust 8, 2012 

— I am legend.

This is what Usain Bolt will claim if he wins the 200-meter final at the Olympics on Thursday (3:55 p.m. Eastern time), and this will be correct.

The Jamaican sprinter has once again caught the second half of the Olympics by the tail, winning the fastest 100 meters in history Sunday night.

Now he goes for the double – the very same double he accomplished in Beijing in 2008.

Bolt’s celebrity is such that the rest of the athletes in the Olympic Village sometimes applaud when he walks into the cafeteria. Three star-struck players from the Swedish women’s handball squad managed to wangle their way into his room a few hours after the Olympic 100 final, where Bolt took some pictures with them that were quickly posted on the Internet.

In England, Bolt’s victory in the 100 has been the most-watched moment of the Olympics so far. Even Bolt-mania has its limits, though. His win was only No. 2 in rating for all sports events this year, coming in behind England’s loss to Italy in the European soccer championships.

“He’s the Michael Phelps of our sport,” said American sprinter Justin Gatlin, who finished third to Bolt in the 100.

Well, he is and he isn’t.

While Phelps won a staggering 22 medals over three Olympics – far more than Bolt will ever win – Phelps has no innate love of the spotlight that Bolt embraces.

Before races, Phelps wears headphones to block out the noise and doesn’t acknowledge the crowd when introduced. After wins, Phelps is pleasant and grins a lot. That’s about it. He’s not going to kiss the ground, do a somersault, strike an archer’s pose or do about a dozen other things Bolt did after winning the 100 and then celebrating for about 20 very public, very fun minutes at the Olympic Stadium.

Bolt said he gets less nervous when he’s playing with fans. “The crowd plays a very important part for me,” he said.

So count on more choreography from Bolt on Thursday. He has a deep well of pre- and post-race gestures he can draw up to incite the crowd.

Of course, he will need to win to use them all. And that’s no certainty. Bolt’s training partner, Yohan Blake, has run a career-best 19.26 in the 200. Only Bolt, with his world-record 19.19, has ever run it faster.

For 6-foot-5 Bolt, though, the 200 has always been his favorite event. He has a harder time getting out of the blocks than the typical world-class sprinter, who is usually a half-foot shorter.

But once Bolt comes out of his crouch and reaches cruising speed, the rest of the world may as well just sit back and enjoy the flight.

The 200 – “my pet,” Bolt calls it – allows him longer at full speed than the 100 does and gives his 10-foot stride a little more time to gobble up competitors.

Bolt has the “it” factor, much like Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan and a few others have had. (Cam Newton has it, too, but he’s got to win a Super Bowl to rise to this level).

But the “it” factor only works if it is combined with athletic brilliance. A silver medal just wouldn’t shine the same way. If that happens, the primary narrative will be about why Bolt lost the race, not why Blake or anyone else won it.

Bolt has made no bones about the fact that he wants to become legendary. He said after running the 100 in 9.63 seconds – second-fastest time in history to his own 9.58 – that he wasn’t there yet.

“That’s a first step for me,” he said after the race. “I think I have to defend my 200-meter title also, and then I will consider myself a legend.”

He’s probably going to be a legend in Jamaica forever, no matter what.

But if Bolt wants to keep himself at the top of the Olympic charts internationally, he’s right. He’s got to win. The brilliance must show itself one more time.

And if it does, then just about everyone will buy whatever Bolt is selling.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler

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