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Bolting to a World Record

5 minute read
Sean Gregory/Beijing

He was so far in front of the field, he could have done a reggae dance and still won. Or hit a Caribbean beach. Maybe chomped on some of those Chicken McNuggets he’s so fond of. Instead, near the finish line of the men’s 100m dash Saturday night, Usain Bolt — has any sprinter ever had a more appropriate name? — started to celebrate. Bolt spread out his arms and glanced at the crowd. He slapped his chest a few times. And he did it with his shoes untied: his left laces were flopping around at the finish.

When he crossed the line, he didn’t stop. He kept running around the track, right into the history books.

The 91,000 fans packed into Beijing’s Bird’s Nest saw the greatest sprint in human history Saturday night. And to think, it could have been that much better. For the first half of the race, Bolt was bunched with a few sprinters at the front. He hit another gear, then pulled away for good. And though he slowed down at the finish, he still broke the world record, crossing the line in 9.69 seconds. “He has 9.5 [seconds] in him,” says Richard Thompson, the silver medalist from Trinidad and Tobago. “Lord only knows what we’ll see in the future.”

How about three golds at these Games? Assuming he survives his heats, Bolt will run the finals of the 200m on Aug. 20, and the 4x100m relay two days later. What’s scary is that Bolt actually considers the 200 his best race. While Michael Phelps owned the first week of these Olympics at the pool, Bolt might dominate the second at the track.

What’s certain is that no American will steal the show. Though he promised to be 100% and ready, Tyson Gay, who broke the American 100m record at the U.S. trials before straining a hamstring in another race, never stood a chance. Gay didn’t even qualify for the finals. “It’s obvious that my fitness is not there,” he says. Like Bolt, Gay is an unabashed fan of McDonald’s. Maybe a bad Filet-o’-Fish?

Walter Dix saved some face by winning 100-meter bronze, but the larger problem is that no American will likely win a triple. A few U.S. sprinters take a race and a relay, but Bolt has a good chance to bag the most gold. Even the U.S. shot putters, who were supposed to sweep, let the team down. On Friday, all they managed was a silver. First all those doping scandal, and now a start like this? NBC shut track out of a live primetime spot in the States. That’s beginning to look pretty smart — unless America is ready to beatify Bolt.

At 6’5″, Bolt is the tallest man to ever win the 100; his stride might just stretch over the Caribbean. And he knows how to play to the crowd. After he crossed the finish line in Beijing, some fans were flummoxed. Did Bolt start to celebrate too early? A world record seemed out of the question. But a few seconds later, the time flashed on the board. The crowd roared. Wind: 0.0 No breeze boosted him. It was official.

Though he broke the record, Bolt’s showboating was risky. How many times have we seen a hot-dogging football player get tackled before reaching the end zone? Or a hitter admire a sure home run, only to see the ball trickle off the wall? In 10-second race, one mistake can kill you. He should have spent those last ticks grinding toward the finish, insuring a win. “I wasn’t celebrating,” he says. “I was just happy.” No doubt, Usain, but that was insane.

His pre-game routine was also kind of nuts. “I woke up at 11, then I had lunch,” Bolt says. “Some nuggets,” he says. Yes, the greasy McDonald’s kind. “And then I pretty much went back to my room, and slept again, for like two hours. Then I went back, got some more nuggets.” It’s the breakfast, lunch and dinner of champions.

Bolt’s bad eating habits are somewhat surprising, given how strict his parents were. “He never got in trouble,” says Herb Elliott, the Jamaican team doctor, who knew Bolt as a boy. Jennifer and Wellesley Bolt raised Usain on the north shore of Jamaica, and he turned down scholarship offers from several U.S. colleges for the comforts of home.

Now, Jamaica is ready to return the love. Though the country has a long history of sprinting success, no Jamaican man had ever won Olympic gold. After the race, Bolt took a call from the Jamaican prime minister. “The shops will be shut down, people will be partying in the streets,” says Elliott. It’s a seminal moment, mon. “This is the greatest sports accomplishment in Jamaica’s history,” says Paul McFarlane, a member of the healthy contingent of Jamaica fans who wore green, black, and gold in the Beijing stands. “We’re just a tiny dot in the world, but now we can say we have the fastest man on the planet. Can it get any better than that?”

Well, two more golds would top it. With Bolt lighting up the track, perhaps it’s time to start another celebration.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com