The day started with Chicken McNuggets and ended with three leggy members of the Swedish women’s handball team in his bedroom, although somewhere in between the indulgences and the excesses Usain Bolt found the time to make history. Not much time, mind you—just 9.63 seconds. But the Jamaican sprinter’s gold-medal-winning performance in the men’s 100-m was one for the ages.
It began in the blocks. As camera flashes turned London’s Olympic stadium into the world’s biggest disco, the 25-year-old mugged shamelessly for the fans and a worldwide TV audience estimated at 200 million. He mimed sprinkling something from his fingers—fairy powder, stardust, who knows? He smoothed his hair and mock-wiped sweat from his brow. When the announcer appealed for quiet for the start, he smiled and put a finger to his lips, shushing the crowd. And then, he flashed a broad smile and winked.
So confident. So loose. So cocky. His opponents in the fastest sprint final ever assembled— every man had a season’s-best performance below 9.96 seconds—were used to his gamesmanship, but this was a whole new level. And once the gun went off, he backed it up, tearing down the track to win his second straight Olympic title—not quite equalling his world record of 9.58—but six one-hundredths faster than his blistering time from Beijing in 2008.
The victory celebration was as epic as the race. Wrapped in his black, green and gold national flag, Bolt waded into the crowd time and again to exchange handshakes, hugs and pose for pictures. When the 80,000 in attendance started chanting “U-sain, U-sain, U-sain,” he cocked his hand to his ear, and motioned for more. He directed the photographers and cameramen into position to get his best side. And at one point he even did a somersault on the track. Then once he finally completed the circuit, he capped it all off with a boxer’s shuffle, channelling another Olympic champion, Muhammad Ali. “A lot of you guys doubted me,” he chided reporters—after greeting them with a lion’s roar. “And I just showed the world that I’m the greatest. No matter what, I show up on the day.”
For showmanship and drama, the moment couldn’t be beat. But such magic has often been equalled over the course of London 2012, a Summer Games so replete with standard-shattering performances and nail-biting finishes that they might too lay claim to a best-ever title.
Danny Boyle’s weirdly patriotic opening ceremonies—who else would think to celebrate the dark Satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution alongside the National Health Service—may have set the tone. But it has been the talent of British athletes and the unbridled adulation flowing from the home crowds that has given these Olympics their joyful momentum. On the first night of the track and field competition, team GB gathered three gold medals within 43 minutes. It started with heptathlon queen Jessica Ennis, who was approaching the podium as Greg Rutherford won the long jump. Then, with the fans screaming themselves hoarse in excitement, distance runner Mo Farah—who emigrated from war-torn Somalia at age eight, and has become a symbol of a new Britain—took the 10,000-m and a victory lap wrapped in the Union Jack. All part of a six-gold day for the hosts.
The Brits added four more top-of-the-podium finishes on Eton Dorney’s rowing course, then followed up Bradley Wiggins’s cycling victory in the men’s time trial road race with seven more golds in the velodrome, including Sir Chris Hoy in the men’s keirin—the sixth such bauble of his career, making him the most-decorated U.K.Olympian ever. Alistair Brownlee chipped in with gold in the men’s triathlon, while his younger brother Jonathan took bronze. And Andy Murray finally conquered his Wimbledon demons by beating Roger Federer to become Olympic tennis champion. With five full days of competition remaining it was the home country’s best medal haul since 1908, when tug-of-war and water motorsports were still included. And the flag-waving and street celebrations have grown so large as to almost match the jingoistic frenzy that was Vancouver 2010. Even the British press—who had predicted disaster and chronicled every setback for the organizing committee with told-you-so glee—were climbing on the bandwagon. “Our finest Olympic hour,” was the Sunday Times Churchillian headline after Ennis’s victory on super Saturday. Although the Daily Star’s “Joy of six” was far funnier.
But the breathtaking displays of sporting pride and prowess were hardly limited to locals. In the women’s triathlon, Nicola Spirig of Switzerland and Lisa Norden of Sweden arrived at the end of the 51.5-km race shoulder to shoulder, crossing the line with identical times. (The cameras gave victory to Spirig by a toenail.) In the pool, as one phenom, Michael Phelps, bowed out, others rose to take his place—including his U.S. teammate 17-year-old Missy Franklin, winner of four golds. Yang Sun of China cut three seconds off his own world record in the gruelling 1500-m, and added another gold in the 400-m freestyle, as well as a silver in the 200-m and a relay bronze. He wasn’t quite as dominant as his teammates at the other end of the pool, who won five diving golds, two silvers and a bronze, with more surely on tap in the 10-m platform competitions.
London’s star, however, remains the relaxed and remarkable Bolt. After the 100-m victory his Twitter account clocked its one-millionth follower. (Which may have had something to do with the picture he posted of the Swedish trio.) And if he manages to repeat his Beijing performance—where he also won gold in the 200-m and as part of the 4 x 100-m relay team—two million isn’t out of the question. “It’s all for the fans. I love showing them the energy that they give to me,” Bolt explained. “When they say, ‘On your mark,’ that’s when the focus starts.” These Olympics are all about the legacy, he says. “I am one more step closer to being a legend.” The fastest man on Earth, in more ways than one.