Bolt's unexpected success adds new drama to men's 100-meter race

BEIJING -- His nickname is "Lightning," but "Thunder" might be more suitable for Usain Bolt. At 6-foot-5-inches, 195 pounds, the 21-year-old Bolt is a giant by sprinting standards, and as he readies for the 100 meters here, his footfalls this year have shaken the track world.

Not only has Bolt rewritten the 100-meter world record, with a 9.72-second sprint in New York in May, "He's changed the thinking in the sport," says four-time Olympic sprint medalist and NBC analyst Ato Boldon.

Until Bolt, height was seen as a liability in the 100. "You don't look on the Redeem Team for the 100-meter champion," Boldon says. "Somebody that tall should not have that kind of turnover."

The Jamaican has also changed the betting lines in the 100, which opened with the first of four rounds Friday in Beijing's National Stadium. The final is Saturday.

At the start of the year, the 100 was supposed to feature reigning world champ Tyson Gay and former world-record holder Asafa Powell. Gay beat Powell decisively in Osaka last August en route to three gold medals, while Powell lowered his own world record to 9.74 a few weeks later.

Then, Bolt stunned the world with his record. His emergence left his shoe sponsor, Puma, scrambling to get his face in front of the public, and his potential leaves the experts shaking their heads. Gay's and Powell's only shot might be if Bolt's start betrays him.

"If he gets the same start he got in New York, forget about it," Boldon says.

It's a simple matter of math. Bolt's stride is much longer than the 5-foot-11 Gay's and the 6-foot-1 Powell's. But he turns it over just as fast as the smaller men; so while it takes Powell and Gay about 48 steps to get to the finish line, Bolt can get there in fewer than 45. If he gets out of the blocks as well as they do, the race is over almost before it's begun.

"What did Ben Johnson used to say?" asks Boldon. "'When the gun go off, the race be done.'"

But Bolt can't count on a good start. It's one reason he never ran the 100 seriously until this season, specializing instead on the 200.

That's where he was supposed to make noise at these Games. Last year, he finished second to Gay in the world championships. "This year, we were just planning for the 200 meters in Beijing," Bolt says.

Plan A went out the window in the spring. Bolt entered some 100-meter races to work on his start to help shave time off his 200. "My first two steps were always kind of slow," he says. "My second step, I always popped up."

This spring, he concentrated on staying low, and a colossus was born. In early May, he ran a 9.76 in Kingston, Jamaica, in the third 100-meter race of his pro career, then topped it with the 9.72 in New York. It shocked everyone, including Gay, who ran 9.85 -- an excellent early-season time -- and was still blown out.

Bolt continued to impress through the summer, though he focused on the 200. He scorched an Athens track in 19.67 in July, fastest in the world this year. His performances forced Michael Johnson to concede that his 200 record of 19.32 is in jeopardy.

The affable Bolt, who is good friends with American sprinter Wallace Spearmon, is in most ways a typical big kid. He plays a lot of video games, enjoys soccer and hoops, and never seems fazed during competitions.

Before the New York race, where the stands were packed with Jamaicans, he said, "I know everyone there expects me to set a world record." He tossed it off as casually as if he were recounting what was for breakfast.

But how he responds to the Olympic spotlight will determine the race. "This environment's going to be different," Gay says. "There's going to be a lot more pressure."

If the pressure affects Bolt, his rivals will be ready to pounce. Gay is coming off a hamstring injury he suffered running the 200 at the Olympic trials. But the week before the injury, he set the U.S. 100 record of 9.77 and ran a wind-aided 9.68 -- the fastest ever recorded. And throughout his career, he's showed the mental toughness to win major titles.

Powell, Bolt's Jamaican countryman, has been the world's purest 100-meter talent over the past four years, clinging tenaciously to the world record until Bolt grabbed it. He has a history of coming up short in big races, and last year admitted he panicked when he finished third in the 100 world championship final against Gay. But he beat Bolt in July in Stockholm, and nobody has more to prove.

So will Gay's experience and Powell's motivation be enough against Bolt?

Gay says no; he believes the gold medalist must run faster than anyone ever has.

"With three guys who can run 9.7, anything is possible," Gay says. "In order to win, I have to run 9.6, most likely. That's what I trained my mind to do."

And that's what fans will train their sights on. When the gun goes off in Saturday's final, expect more fireworks in the Bird's Nest. Not to mention thunder and lightning.

Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.