In spite of the unprecedented speed at which he won a gold medal, the Olympic 100m champion had a mighty long wait before he could wear it. It was more than 22 hours before the scheduling allowed Usain Bolt to reach the podium on Sunday night, and bow his head very low so the official on presentation-duty could reach him. He then blew kisses all round the Bird’s Nest and heard 91,000 people cheering him for the second night running.
But in Olympic sprinting, the long aftermath is often more important than the brief race. Every triumph is subject to ratification by drug testing: the contents of Bolt’s urine are as crucial as his pace. And not just to him. For the hopes of an entire sport, and to some extent the whole Olympic movement, rest with him.
He says he cares about winning golds, not breaking records, but his real mission is far more important. He has to save athletics. Its profile has been savaged by drug revelations in the very era when the sedentary workers of the world have gone running-crazy. Between Olympics, the world has stopped caring, except when we hear that yet another corrupt champion has been unmasked.
Hardly a runner in these Olympics came to them as a household name anywhere outside his or her own country and the athletics community. Now Bolt, with his crisp and magnificently appropriate name, his showmanship, his insouciance and his natural brilliance, has the chance to reverse all that. If he’s clean.
Sport’s appeal depends on its continual ability to answer questions we want answered. Usually, it’s simply: “Will my team win?” But now Bolt can help answer the most elemental sporting question of all: just how fast can a man run?
On Saturday we saw him slow up and still break his own world record. One finalist, Marc Burns, said Bolt could definitely cut his new record of 9.69sec to around 9.54.
Dr Aki Salo of Bath University, the British team’s biomechanics expert, says there is no reason why it can’t go much lower than that. “Evolution improves all the time,” he says. “We might not see it in our lifetime, but 9.4, 9.2, under nine seconds – I can’t see why not.”
Bolt has revolutionised the theory of sprinting, a discipline in which small men were supposed to have the advantage because they can unwind faster from the blocks. Now – at 6ft 5in – Bolt has shown that length of stride (previously considered less important than its frequency) can be the crucial element.
And he does have the most astonishing physique. “Look at the guy!” purred the Jamaican team doctor Herb Elliott, as Bolt made his way through the post-race throng. “He’s very special.” And, at first sight, his body does look like one of God’s more successful products rather than a pharmacist’s creation.
History has made us all wary and cynical, but back home in Trelawny, in rural Jamaica, Bolt’s father Wellesley had a simple explanation: “Is the Trelawny yam ... in him.” Yams are not believed to be on the official list of banned substances, nor are the chicken nuggets, Bolt’s diet for finals day.