Usain Bolt’s Muhammad Ali moment

He’d won the 100 metres before leaving the blocks

Usain Bolt won the men’s 100 metre sprint before he ever left the starting blocks.

As camera flashes turned London’s Olympic stadium into the world’s biggest disco, he mugged shamelessly for the TV audience. He mimed sprinkling something from his fingers—magic 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 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 in 9.63 seconds, six one-hundredths faster than in Beijing, on his way to another Olympic gold.

If there was a difference, it was that this time he actually ran for the entire distance. Pushed by his fellow Jamaican Yohan Blake who took the silver in 9.75 seconds, and Justin Gatlin of the U.S. who took bronze in 9.79 (the time that won the race for a doped up Ben Johnson in Seoul way back in 1988) Bolt actually had to try. He caught Gatlin at the 50 metre mark and then powered towards the finish line, even dipping his head to make sure he crossed first.

“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.”

Truth be told, the master psyche-out had started far before the London Games.  His performances since he set the world record at the 2009 World Championship—a jaw-dropping 9.58—had been far from dominant. He lost twice to his training partner Blake at the Jamaican national trials this spring. And once he arrived in the UK, he let it be known that he not only had hamstring problems, but a wonky back as well. In the qualification round, he ran a 10.09—respectable, but not blazing.

It was until the semis, a couple of hours before the finals, that he allowed his true form to shine.

During the introductions, he mugged and shadow boxed, crossed himself and pointed to the heavens. And running in a group that included Richard Thompson of Trinidad, the silver medalist in Beijing, and Ryan Bailey of the U.S., he aired it all out over the first 70 metres, looked to his left, then right to make sure he was all alone, and then pretty much jogged to the finish crossing in 9.87 seconds. A few minutes later down in the press zone, he watched a replay of the race on TV, smirked and strutted happily away. Usain Bolt was back.

The celebration lap after the gold was epic. Wrapped in the black, green and gold flag of Jamaica, he waded into the crowd time and again, to exchange handshakes, hugs and pose for pictures. “U-sain, U-sain, U-sain,” the fans chanted. He cocked his hand to his ear, and motioned his arm for more. He directed the photographers and cameramen into position. And at one point he even did a somersault on the track.

However, the most telling moment came when he finally completed his lap of the stadium long minutes later. Back in front of the waiting broadcast positions he broke into a boxer’s quick shuffle, and it was suddenly clear who he was channelling. The whole night was one long impersonation—or maybe a tribute—to Muhammad Ali. A man who won as many matches out of the ring as in it.

“It’s all for the fans. I love showing them the energy that they give to me,” Bolt explained. “When they say ‘On Your Marks’ that’s when the focus starts.”

Bolt was still celebrating as the fans filed out of the stadium. Then he began his long post-race wind down, stopping for interviews with each and every one of the official Olympic broadcasters—more than two dozen in all. And each chat lasted far longer than 9.63 seconds.

Other than letting his mouth run, there were to be no official celebrations of the victory. Bolt still has two races to come—the 200m and the 4x100m relay—in his attempt to match the three golds he won in Beijing.

“Tonight just means I am one more step closer to being a legend,” he said. “And I’m happy with that.”

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