LONDON » Lining up for the Olympic 100-meter final, Usain Bolt wrapped up his signature prerace preening by lifting a finger to his lips.
Time to silence the critics.
He might not be better than ever. Clearly, he’s back to being the best.
Pulling away from the pack with every long stride, Bolt surged after his typical lumbering break from the blocks and overwhelmed a star-studded field to win in 9.63 seconds Sunday night, the second-fastest 100 in history and an Olympic record that let him join Carl Lewis as the only men with consecutive gold medals in the Summer Games’ marquee track event.
"Means a lot, because a lot of people were doubting me. A lot of people were saying I wasn’t going to win, I didn’t look good. There was a lot of talk," Bolt said. "It’s an even greater feeling to come out here and defend my title and show the world I’m still No. 1."
Only sixth-fastest of the eight runners to the halfway mark, Bolt was his brilliant self down the stretch, his latest scintillating performance on his sport’s biggest stage. At Beijing four years ago, the 6-foot-5 Bolt seemingly reinvented sprinting and electrified track and field, winning gold medals in world-record times in the 100, 200 and 4×100 relay — something no man had ever done at an Olympics.
And the significance of Sunday’s sequel?
"One step closer to becoming a legend," Bolt said. "So I’m happy with myself."
Ever the entertainer, the Jamaican kept right on running past the finish for a victory lap that included high-fives with front-row fans, a pause to kneel down and kiss the track and even a somersault. Thousands in the capacity crowd of about 80,000 chanted the champion’s name: "Usain! Usain! Usain!"
Bolt’s training partner and Jamaican teammate, world champion Yohan Blake, won the silver in 9.75, and 2004 Olympic champion Justin Gatlin of the U.S. took the bronze in 9.79.
"It just feels good to be back," said Gatlin, who served a four-year ban after testing positive for excessive testosterone.
"To be honest, I went out there to challenge a mountain. I went out there to challenge the odds. Not just myself and everything I’ve been through, but the legacy of Usain Bolt," Gatlin said. "I had to go out there and be fearless."
Everyone in the final broke 10 seconds except former world-record holder Asafa Powell of Jamaica, who pulled up with a groin injury.
At the last Olympics, Bolt announced his arrival on the global stage by winning the 100 with a then-record 9.69 seconds, even though he slowed down to celebrate by pounding his chest over the last 20 meters. That mark only lasted until the 2009 world championships, when he lowered the mark to 9.58.
But The World’s Fastest Man had been something less than Boltesque since then, in part due to a string of minor injuries to his back and legs.
In 2010, he lost to Tyson Gay, the American who’s a past world champion and cried inconsolably after ending up fourth Sunday in a time (9.80) that would have been good enough to win every Olympic 100 gold medal other than the past two.
"I tried, man," Gay said as tears streamed down his face. "I tried my best."
A false start knocked Bolt out of the 100 at last year’s world championships, creating an opening for Blake. Then came recent, much-discussed losses to Blake in the 100 and 200 at the Jamaican Olympic trials.
"The trials woke me up. Yohan gave me a wakeup call," Bolt said. "He knocked on my door and said, ‘Usain, wake up! This is an Olympic year.’ "
"I had to show the world I’m the greatest," he said.
If that hasn’t already been accomplished, Bolt sure is close. He will begin defending his title in the 200, which he considers his best event, in Tuesday’s heats. He’s also part of Jamaica’s 4×100 relay team, of course, and wouldn’t rule out taking part in the 4×400 this time, as well.
After he’d closed out his mugging for the cameras, even pantomiming spinning a record like a DJ, Bolt crouched into the blocks. Right before the starting gun, a plastic bottle was tossed from the stands and it landed on the track behind Blake’s lane. But neither Bolt nor Blake noticed.
"When they say, ‘On your marks,’ that’s when the focus starts," Bolt said.
"I stopped worrying about the start," Bolt said. "The end is what’s important."
Oh, and how he enjoyed what came next.
Bolt, who turns 26 this month, delivered the sort of scene he made so commonplace in Beijing: a look-at-me! series of photo ops, including dance moves fit for a nightclub and what he calls his "To the World" pose, when he leans back and points to the sky.
He hugged Blake, the guy Bolt nicknamed "The Beast" because of his intensity in practices.
Gatlin didn’t begrudge Bolt’s enthusiasm.
"He’s the Michael Phelps of our sport," Gatlin said, referring to the U.S. swimmer who has won a record 22 Olympic medals, 18 gold. "What can you say? He’s a showman. Is it arrogance? Confidence? It’s a good show."
Bolt is not the most serious fellow, and he isn’t too proud to admit he never has put much emphasis on fitness. In 2008, he explained that his success was fueled by chicken nuggets from a fast-food restaurant in the Olympic village. This time around, he noted that he noshed Sunday on a sandwich wrap from the same chain.
"It was chicken with vegetables, so it was healthy," Bolt said with perfect deadpan delivery. "Don’t judge me."
Other winners Sunday were Ezekiel Kemboi of Kenya in the men’s 3,000-meter steeplechase, Krisztian Pars of Hungary in the men’s hammer throw and Olga Rypakova of Kazakhstan in the women’s triple jump.
Oscar Pistorius, the amputee "Blade Runner" from South Africa, finished last in his 400-meter semifinal but will get another chance in next week’s 4×400-meter relay.