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9.81 Seconds Of Bliss

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USAIN BOLT 'SJOB ISN'T JUST TO WIN. IT'S TO MAKE THE OLYMPICS—HOWEVER BRIEFLY—A FEEL-GOOD EXPERIENCE. AS USUAL, THE ULTIMATE ESCAPISM ARTIST DELIVERED

THE MAN'S job is to bring joy. In the ceremonial moments just before his race, in the fewer than 10 seconds during which he sprints down the track and in the celebratory minutes just afterward, Usain Bolt of Jamaica is expected to restore peace to the world. He is asked to transport us to a magical place where all athletes are free of drugs and none are mugged at gunpoint and officials are generous idealists in service of the greater good of the five rings. There is no controversy here, there is only the big man and 100 meters of earth disappearing beneath his feet until he crosses the finish line to roaring and relieved approval.

His job, in short, is to rescue the Olympic Games. And not in the way that U.S. swimmers Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky and gymnast Simone Biles rescue the Olympics, by keeping U.S. television viewers sated with medals and repeated playings of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Bolt is expected to save the Olympics from the galloping scourge of mistrust and indifference, to act as the beacon of purity that takes us back to another time. This is a tall order, but Bolt is always game to try.

On Sunday night—a warm Brazilian winter's eve, with the lights of the Olympic Stadium illuminating an eerie haze—Bolt took the gold medal in the 100 meters for the third consecutive time. (Only Carl Lewis had done it twice.) Wearing gold Puma spikes, Bolt easily ran down fast-starting Justin Gatlin of the U.S. and crossed the line in 9.81 seconds. It was his fastest time in a year that has been sabotaged by injuries, but it was the slowest of his three Olympic 100-meter finals. "I'm happy," said Bolt, who will turn 30 this Sunday. "I'm proud of myself. This is what I came here for."

Beginning with his first gold medal, in the 100 at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Bolt has started 19 championship races in the 100 meters, 200 meters and 4 × 100-meter relay, and he has won 18. His only loss was in the 2011 world championships, when he was disqualified for a false start. That is a staggering record of consistency on a stage where nerves twitch and talented, swaggering men shrink from the moment. "I wanted to set myself apart from everybody else," Bolt said. He has said repeatedly that these will be his last Olympics.

Bolt's victory came on a night when all that is great about track and field was on display, and also much of what is not so great. The full-throated adoration of a disappointingly less-than-full stadium bumped up against some ugly disapproval and some staggering organizational incompetence.

The evening began with a world record in the 400 meters by 24-year-old Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa. Running blind from lane 8, van Niekerk tore around the blue track in 43.03 seconds, shattering Michael Johnson's 17-year-old world record of 43.18 seconds. Van Niekerk, whose mother's athletic career was stunted by apartheid and who is coached by 74-year-old Anna Botha, ran not only the fastest one-lap race in history but also arguably the best, given the competition and the occasion.

Even as van Niekerk did his victory celebration he ceded the stage to the 100-meter finalists. The race was scheduled to start at 10:25 p.m., just 71 minutes after the last 100 semifinal. It is common for the 100 semi and final to take place on the same night, but often at least 90 minutes apart. Every minute counts. This would become a contentious topic in the minutes after the final.

The second-to-last finalist to be introduced was Gatlin. When his name was called it was greeted by loud boos—not a smattering but a chorus. They drowned out any applause, and few longtime track journalists could remember anything like it. It's impossible to survey the audience, but it's logical to assume that Gatlin was booed because he served a four-year doping suspension from 2006 to '10.

"You hear everything, but you tune that stuff out," said Gatlin. "People get excited and enthralled about Usain Bolt. I didn't focus on the boos; I was just happy to see all the American flags in the stands."

Gatlin's face told another story. He looked heartbroken, as if six years as the poster child for lifetime bans had finally broken him. He is usually animated and active on the line, but he was neither of those things on Sunday night.

The reception for Bolt was rapturous applause, followed by a chant: "Bolt! Bolt! Bolt!" And then another one, "U-SAIN-BOLT! U-SAIN-BOLT!"

Before Bolt folded himself into the starting blocks, his last Olympic season had been a familiar struggle against the same big body that had served him so well. "The one thing I've never had," he said in May, "is a perfect season—no injuries, everything smooth, and see how fast I could run." In June he clocked 9.88 for 100 meters at a meet in Kingston, Jamaica, despite stumbling twice. But three weeks later, at the Jamaican trials, he strained his lower back and left hamstring, which had often given him problems in the past.

"Usain missed two weeks of training after the trials," said his longtime friend and executive manager, Nugent (N.J.) Walker. The injury took world records off the table, but Bolt still got back in shape for the Games. He won his Olympic semifinal in 9.86 seconds. "I felt good," he said. "I thought I might be able to run a fast time in the final."

But because of the short interval between the semifinal and final, the entire field came to the line tired. "We only had about 30 minutes, once we got out to the warmup track, before we had to go back to the call room," Gatlin said. Still, he popped off the line first and opened up a small lead. Bolt's start was unspectacular, but his reaction time was only .003 of a second slower than Gatlin's. "I knew all I had to do was keep my composure and keep chipping away at the lead," Bolt said. At 50 meters he was just half a stride behind Gatlin but closing so quickly that the outcome was obvious.

Gatlin said after the race that he didn't see Bolt closing on him, despite the fact that they were just two lanes apart. Andre De Grasse of Canada, the 21-year-old sprinter who won two NCAA titles for USC in 2015, was one lane outside Bolt. "I saw him at 70 or 80 meters, and I tried to go with him," said De Grasse, "but he had another gear." Bolt sailed through the line in 9.81, slower than the mystical 9.69 he ran in Beijing and his 9.63 in London. Gatlin held on for second in 9.89. The bronze went to De Grasse in 9.91. He was one of only two runners to nail down a personal best.

Bolt, meanwhile, did not stop at the finish, instead running around the curve, onto the backstretch and into the stands in the front straightaway. He fell into the crowd and posed for a series of selfies, including one with the three top finishers in the heptathlon, whose medal ceremony had just taken place.

It was the Full Bolt, the extra that comes with a ticket to see him race. Music played and the stadium rocked. For just an instant, all was right with the Olympic Games.