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Saturday, August 4, 2012
The Usain Bolt show begins in London

By Michael Wilbon

LONDON -- The drama travels well, which is part of the reason Usain Bolt could be the most irresistible athlete at the London Olympics. Nothing is normal or ordinary with the fastest man in history, not even a simple first-round qualifying race. Saturday in the men's 100-meter prelims, Bolt won his heat in 10.09, but only after stumbling on his fifth step and recording only the ninth-fastest time of the opening round.

Only Bolt could briefly interrupt the stadium's obsession with Great Britain's beloved heptathlete hopeful Jessica Ennis. Bolt is the rock star of these Games. Bolt is the one, U.S. swimmer Natalie Coughlin recalled, who received a standing ovation when he arrived at the athletes' village. It was Bolt and only Bolt who received a Michael Buffer-style announcement at the start line.

Usain Bolt
Usain Bolt won his semifinal heat in 10.09 seconds Saturday.

"He looked like Bolt," American Justin Gatlin said after a first round in which all the favorites ran like favorites to reach Sunday's semifinals of the marquee event at these Olympics for some of us. "He came here with his A-game. ... You have to think 9.6, 9.5."

Other than most marveling at Michael Phelps, Bolt has consumed more attention than any non-British athlete: whether his body is fit and whether his mind is right, neither of which can be answered in the first round. But what was apparent is the field has plenty of legitimate challengers, men who have won world championships or held world records. Four men who would seem to be Bolt's primary challengers -- Jamaican teammates Asafa Powell and Yohan Blake, and Americans Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay -- all won their heats.

Powell, the man who has run the 100 in less than 10 seconds more times than any other man, couldn't believe what he was seeing. Never in Olympic history had anyone gone sub-10 seconds in the first round. Yet, by the time Powell took the track, Gatlin had run a 9.97 and American Ryan Bailey had equaled a lifetime best of 9.88, causing Powell to ask, "Hey, what's going on here?"

Part of what's going on is a springy new track. On Friday, the very first day of competition at Olympic Stadium, athletes produced 52 personal bests. It makes you wonder how fast Bolt could run Sunday night in the final if he is as fit as he was in 2008 in Beijing and is as pushed as one would think this field would be able to do.

Gatlin, for one, isn't buying the talk that Bolt is off his form.

"He's the equivalent of the guy walking on the moon for the first time," Gatlin told a group of reporters. "He's done something that no one has ever done before. You have to line up in the blocks, shoulder to shoulder, with this guy? You're going to be in awe sometimes. I think a lot of runners almost have that audience mentality: See what he's going to do, even while you're running. You've got to block that out, go out there and compete against that guy."

What could make that especially difficult is a realization Bolt and his coaches have come to, seemingly in the past few weeks, if not days. Bolt said they've all "come to the conclusion" that they should stop obsessing over the start of his races, which have never been his strength, and sharpen "the last 50 meters because that's my strong point. We're going to focus on the race as we [used] to do."

It has created a kind of "prize fight" atmosphere around Bolt, the Olympic and world champ, the man with the fastest times in the 100 and 200. The man who is expected to not just win at these Olympics but put on an unforgettable show.