BEIJING — A heart-stopper. A lean at the line. A next-to-nothing margin over a more-than-game challenger.
Sure, for Usain Bolt, the winning result, the bow-and-arrow victory celebration and even the setting may have been the same as 2008. But the show he put on Sunday in a .01-second victory over Justin Gatlin at the Bird’s Nest was something very different.
Bolt crossed the line in 9.79 seconds — pedestrian by his standards. Yet it very well may have been his greatest race ever.
“My coach said, ‘You’ll have to run 100 meters if you’re going to win the race,'” Bolt said after capturing his record ninth career gold medal at world championships. “So I ran 100 meters.”
The 29-year-old Jamaican came in hurting and anything but race ready — a far cry from seven years ago, when he put his stamp on the Beijing Olympics in the same stadium by slowing down and bringing his hands out to his side to start the celebration with 20 meters left. Even with that, he crossed the line in a then-world-record time of 9.69 seconds.
By now, that’s ancient history, and the proof was in the results from the last two years. Gatlin has been dominating the sprint game, while Bolt has spent more time rehabbing than racing.
The problems carried right into Sunday. Bolt’s semifinal run — normally a stress-free jog — turned dicey when he stumbled on his fifth step out of the starting block. He was in sixth place more than halfway through and had to push to beat out Trayvon Bromell.
In the next semifinal race, Gatlin breezed, just as he had the night before in the heats. Set against each other, those performances turned Gatlin into the betting favorite, and who could argue?
And so, the stakes were set: The world-record holder and track’s happy warrior against a twice-convicted doper, who also won the 100 at the 2004 Olympics and the world championships in 2005.
That Gatlin burst from the blocks faster was no surprise; Bolt was his typically slow self in unfurling his 6-foot-5 frame from the start.
That Gatlin was winning at the halfway point wasn’t too shocking, either. “The best part of my race is usually the end,” Bolt said.
At 80 meters, the math started changing. Bolt drew to within a step but Gatlin was holding him off.
Then, with about 15 meters left, Gatlin over-strided, then did it again, then started leaning toward the line. Bolt stayed upright, crossed with a big kick and with his chest pushed forward. A sliver of space for a man who wins by body lengths.
After eyeing the scoreboard, Bolt punched his right fist down and kicked his left leg up, a clearly unchoreographed celebration for a man who often starts planning them while the race is still going. It was the closest 100 final at the worlds since 2003, when Kim Collins edged Darrel Brown by .01.
“At the end of the day, I guess I would say I gave the race away the last five meters,” Gatlin said.
A bitter pill for the 33-year-old ex-champ, who handled it with his typical class, but still gets asked about his doping past no matter what the result.
“He served his suspension, and all of a sudden, self-righteous people who’ve never done anything wrong in their lives want to vilify him,” said Gatlin’s agent, Renaldo Nehemiah.
Also winning gold medals Sunday were Jessica Ennis-Hill of Britain in the heptathlon, Joe Kovacs of the United States in the shot put and Pawel Fajdek of Poland in the hammer throw.
Gatlin will presumably get another chance at gold, and another chance at Bolt, on Thursday in the 200-meter final — the race Bolt has always called his favorite.
No matter how it goes, there figures to be some drama and tension between these two over the next 11 1/2 months, as the lead-in to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro heats up.
In Rio, Bolt will try to make it 3 for 3 at the Olympics in the 100, 200 and the 4×100 relay. He’ll go there having proven something that most long-time champions have to prove sooner or later: That he could win a close one when he wasn’t close to his best and his opponent was.
“Ask any athlete, and they’ll tell you, if you start doubting yourself, you’ve already lost,” Bolt said. “I never started doubting myself. I just tried to put together a race.”
And so, the final photo taken on the track looked like so many others that Bolt’s taken over the years: The World’s Fastest Man holding that long, languid bow-and-arrow pose — smiling, playing to the crowd.
What a race.
“I was screaming. I was screaming because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Bolt’s father, Wellesley, said after a harrowing night in the stands. “But we know Usain. He’s a very stubborn man and he didn’t give up.”