RIO DE JANEIRO — Usain Bolt glanced to his right once, twice, three times. No surprise: Nobody was there.
That’s how the quest began for his final individual sprint gold at the Olympics — a jog through the sunshine in the opening round of the 200 meters and a stress-free victory in the ninth heat of Tuesday’s qualifying.
He finished in 20.28 seconds, a time that means nothing. More importantly, he coasted into the finish line after triple-checking on Nigeria’s Ejowvokoghene Oduduru simply to make sure nothing crazy was happening.
“I know how to run the 200,” Bolt said. “It’s all about just reminding myself. Tomorrow, I’ll show up with much better progress. I have to run fast, and so I’m looking forward to that.”
If Wednesday’s semifinals go as expected, he’ll be lining up for gold medal No. 8 on Thursday night, where the biggest drama may not be whether he wins, but whether he cracks the once-thought-untouchable 19-second barrier. He already owns both the world record at 19.19, and Olympic record at 19.30.
Among those who will challenge him include American Justin Gatlin and Canadian Andre De Grasse, who finished 2-3 to Bolt in the 100, along with LaShawn Merritt of the U.S. They all won their heats on a muggy, sun-splashed day in a stadium with huge swaths of empty blue seats.
Most fans who did show were crowded along the opening curve, and they made plenty of noise when Bolt came onto the track. He flashed a big smile into the TV cameras and windmilled his arms, then raised them overhead to clap a couple of times. At one point, he looked toward the scoreboard, covered his eyes and squinted into the bright sunshine.
“I’m not an early-morning person,” said Bolt, whose race began at 12:45 p.m. local time.
The fans went silent before the start. No, there would be no fireworks in an opening heat with no medal at stake and nobody lining up who could even give him a race. Only one other sprinter in his heat, Norway’s Jaysuma Saidy Ndure, had ever broken 20 seconds and he finished tied for last.
Still, this was Bolt — as big a star as there is at these Olympics — so the silence made sense.
He lumbered out of the blocks. His .177 reaction time was the slowest of the eight runners. That has turned every 100-meter sprint he’s run into a come-from-behind affair, where his pure speed takes the day.
He considers the 100 his hobby, and the 200 his real job. And as he starts working his way through the curve, it’s easy to see that his long-legged, 6-foot-5 frame was built for the longer race.
In this case, it was over before Bolt even got to the straightaway. All those looks to his right weren’t so much taunting — no sign of that smile seen around the world in his 100-meter semifinal — but more a way of ensuring he doesn’t waste a lick of energy.
“I came out here to qualify,” Bolt said, “and that’s what I did.”
When it was over, Bolt walked over and hugged his closest pursuer, Oduduru, who finished only .06 seconds behind.
By the time the 10th and final heat ended, Bolt had only recorded the 15th-fastest time of 77 sprinters who lined up. No matter. The World’s Fastest Man is moving on, another gold and — who knows? — maybe another record in his sights.