BEIJING - Track and field needs a new hero.
It got one Saturday night who can fly.
In the most outrageous display of speed to ever burn across the Olympic Games, Usain Bolt of Jamaica rocketed to gold in winning the men's 100m dash in 9.69 seconds -- not only a new world record but the first time in the history of human beings a man has run the distance under 9.7 seconds without a significant tailwind.
Incredibly, Bolt, 21, could have gone faster.
With a full seven strides to go, he dropped his arms and let them fall outstretched to his sides, appearing almost to run sideways as he played to the sold-out crowd of 91,000 at the Bird's Nest. Just before the finish line, he started high-stepping and, for good measure, executed a chest-thump.
All that, and still -- 9.69 seconds. Bolt simply ran away from the rest of the best of the world.
"I was just saying I'm No. 1," Bolt said later. "This is what I came out here to do, and I made it."
Asked how much faster he could go if the display hadn't commenced with those seven strides remaining, Bolt responded, "I'm not even worried about that right now. I'm Olympic champion."
Richard THOMPSON of Trinidad & Tobago finished second, a full two-tenths of a second back, in 9.89. "Usain Bolt is just a great athlete," Thompson said. "He came in here and ran a phenomenal race."
Walter Dix of the United States took third, in 9.91.
Six of the men in the final ran under 10 seconds. Three ran personal bests. Churandy Martina of the Netherlands Antilles set a national record, finishing fourth in 9.93.
Tyson Gay of the United States, who suffered a hamstring strain at the U.S. Olympic Trials in early July, failed to make it out of his semifinal heat.
Gay, the 2007 world champion at both the 100m and 200m, finished fifth of eight in his semifinal earlier Saturday night. Only the top four advance.
"It was kind of devastating," he said.
If, as time goes on, Bolt proves clean -- the sport has been bedeviled by drugs, doping cases taking out the 2004 men's Olympic champion, Justin Gatlin, as well as the 2000 women's champ, Marion Jones -- then perhaps, just maybe, he's just what track and field needs.
Bolt has not aroused particularized suspicion.
But the Jamaicans -- out on a Carribean island where anti-doping programs are in their nascent stages -- have, since arriving in Beijing, undergone so many tests, 32 in seven days, that Jamaican officials started to complain.
Track's governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations, dismissed those complaints, saying it was only natural to test those who seemed medal contenders.
Which Bolt and Asafa Powell assuredly were. Gay, too.
Gay's semifinal disaster re-shaped a race that many had been anticipating as a matchup of the three fastest men in human history.
Powell had three times run the 100m in a then-world record 9.77 -- the first time in 2005, twice in 2006. He then broke his own record with a 9.74 in September 2007.
That time stood as the world mark until this past May 31, when Bolt, running in New York, uncorked a 9.72. That race marked only the fifth time he had ever run the 100m.
Gay, in the quarterfinals of the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., ran 9.77. That's now the American record.
Then, in the Trials finals, Gay ran a wind-aided 9.68. It's not a world record, not even an American record because of the wind.
But it is still -- even after Saturday night -- the fastest time recorded in history.
Powell, 25, came to Beijing with a reputation as a big-meet choker.
As track and field junkies well know, it's one thing to run fast in a one-off race, even to set a world record, but it's quite another to prove one's self in the finals of the Games or the world championships -- because an Olympic or world championship finals comes as the fourth of four rounds.
Prelims, quarters, semis, finals. It's not just about running fast. It's about being smart and strategic and running fast.
And the rigors of the rounds had, in the past, clearly worn Powell down.
He came into the 2004 Games in Athens as the favorite -- after running under 10 seconds that season nine times.
He finished fifth.
Powell came into the 2007 world championships as the 9.77 record holder.
He finished third.
As for the 21-year-old Bolt -- he was, until this season, a 200m guy.
Including these Olympics, Bolt has run perhaps a dozen competitive 100m sprints in his entire life.
Running Friday night under a full moon, in golden spikes, he ran 9.92 -- after slowing down about halfway through and switching to what was, for him, a jog.
That time would have been good enough for a medal at all but two prior Olympics. It was, at the time, the fastest 100m sprint ever run on Chinese soil.
And he looked effortless.
"I just ran the first 50 meters, then I looked around to make sure I was safe and I shut it off," he said after Friday's prelims, adding, "I'm ready for my best."
Bolt ran again in the first of Saturday evening's first two semifinal heats.
He shut it down with about 20 meters to go, looking first left, then back to his right, then back left again, at the clock. It read 9.85.
The next heat matched Powell and Gay.
Powell won the heat, in 9.91.
Gay finished fifth, in 10.05.
Just that quick -- Gay was out.
The hamstring strain, he said, "set me back three or four weeks," and while he said his leg felt "100 percent," he also said, "It's obvious that my fitness is not there."
Asked immediately after that to predict the final, Gay said, "Usain Bolt is looking great. Asafa Powell -- and everyone else. And I hope they run a great race."
Powell did not. He finished fifth, again, adding to his miserable legacy in big races. "I was in the race but I wasn't really involved," he said, adding, "I was very tired."
Bolt -- he ran a great race.
"He definitely got out of the blocks well, and he drove the way he has been driving all season," Dix said. "He ran great. A lot of people doubted him ... putting Tyson and Asafa over him. You talk about them. But he proved all the critics wrong."
"I can't explain it," Bolt said of the speed he unleashed Saturday night. "I came out to execute, and I did."
From the ease of Usain Bolt's record-smashing 100m to the sweep in the women's 100m, the world is learning what Jamaicans knew all along: This Caribbean nation is no joke when it comes to track and field.