IT WAS like London 2012 all over again: the sunshine, the stadium, filled to its 65,000 capacity and generating an Olympian atmosphere and noise, the volunteers with their big foam hands, the smiles and good spirits.
Exactly the same down to the identity of the athlete who illuminated the Olympics a year ago – Usain Bolt.
Bolt was the main draw, the star attraction, and he did not disappoint in the race that closed the first night of the Sainsbury’s Anniversary Games, the men’s 100 metres. He won in his fastest time this year, 9.85, after a slow start, even by his standards.
In fact, Bolt got off to an appalling start – “It was horrifying for me,” he said later – which was made to look worse by the St Kitts veteran, Kim Collins, in the lane to his right, who was away with his customary speed and well up on Bolt while the 6ft 5in sprinter was still unfolding.
Bolt later admitted that if he starts like that at the world championships in Moscow next month, he will do well to finish in the top five – perhaps an exaggeration, given his time.
But the American Mike Rodgers, to his left, was also away quickly and up on him and it did at one point look as though he might have too much to do. But once Bolt got up to speed, there was no stopping him; the Olympic champion and world record holder gobbled up the track in the second half of the race to take nine-hundredths of a second off his best time so far this season, with Rodgers second in 9.98 and Nesta Carter third in 9.99.
“It’s always good coming here to London, the crowd gives me so much energy,” said Bolt. “I can definitely go faster, there’s more to come, and Moscow [where the world championships are held next month] is going to be great.”
He was quicker to admit that his start had been bad than he had been out of the blocks. “I was a little bit race-rusty but overall it was good,” said Bolt. “The last part of my race was pretty good, the first half was harder, but I just need to work on a few things and I will be all right.”
His start? “It was horrifying for me and as I said I think it is just race rust and I just need to get a few races in. The rounds in the World Championships will help that and get my legs freer and a bit lighter.
“Hopefully the coach will figure out what I need to do to get me more explosive out of the blocks,” Bolt continued. “My mindset in a championship is always different. But in a great field I would have probably been fifth or something. My coach [Glen Mills] keeps reminding me that I’m not a good starter [and says] don’t worry about the start and go when the gun says go. That is the plan.”
To give the crowd more than 9.85 seconds of Bolt, he had been the warm-up act, too, wheeled around the stadium standing on top of a giant rocket, waving and smiling behind his dark shades, more like a circus act than the world’s greatest athlete. A few hours later, when he re-appeared in his running gear, his loose yellow vest and black cycling shorts, he launched into his routine – the hand gestures and thunder bolt pose, before kissing the tips of his fingers and pointing at a crowd that sparkled with thousands of flashbulbs.
But when it came to the race itself Bolt’s frivolity was replaced by seriousness as he settled in the blocks. He even claimed afterwards that he had been nervous about his return to London. “I saw that it was ram-packed and the energy was still like the Olympics, and it was just wonderful so I was slightly nervous.”
Perhaps it was nervous energy that propelled him to a Bolt-like time, even if he hasn’t often looked like beating his world record of 9.58, set in Berlin in 2009, or the 9.63 he ran while winning Olympic gold last year. But his time here probably isn’t an accurate indication of where his form is -- with a less horrifying start, he should be running sub-9.80 in Moscow.
His return to form augurs well for Bolt and for his sport, because there is a sense, quite apart from the fact that it was his presence that largely explained the 65,000 people in the Olympic Stadium, that the sport of athletics is more dependent on him than ever. The positive drugs tests for his fellow sprinters Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell have only heightened the scepticism and suspicion that has surrounded the men’s 100 metres since Ben Johnson and Seoul, 25 years ago next month.
Not only does Bolt have to win, he also has to persuade the doubters and sceptics. He talked at length on Friday about doping, and how he trusts his team to “keep me on the straight and narrow” when it comes to supplements, and he returned to the subject after his win, though he denied that athletics’ reputation rests on his shoulders.
“I can’t determine how much the sport needs me, that’s for other people,” he said. “I am just here to do my best and to prove to the world that it is possible to run clean and train hard and be focused.”
There were Scots in action on the first night of the three-day meeting, with Stephanie Twell and Eilish McColgan in the 3000m, Laura Muir and US-based Josephine Moultrie in the 1500m, and Allan Smith in the high jump. For McColgan it was a tune-up for the world championships in Moscow, but for Twell, who missed out on selection, it was an opportunity to run out some of her frustration. McColgan was reasonably happy with her 9th, in an outdoor personal best, 8.53.66, while Twell, who was 13th, was less so and admitted her non-selection for the worlds has been on her mind.
“My training the last few weeks has been hard, it’s been on my mind,” she said. “I’m very disappointed. I think there are still questions the selectors need to answer, and not just to me but others. It’s very clouded.”
Twell said that Neil Black, the British Athletics performance director, had called her before the team was announced. “He didn’t have definitive answers, that’s all I can say.”
The big question of the night, however, concerned Bolt. And he offered enough to suggest that he is approaching his best form, just as he did last year. Another question is whether he will be back next year, with his appearance here smoothed by a relaxation of the tax regulations on appearance money – he has reportedly been paid £500,000 for his two days’ work, including today’s relay.
“Hopefully,” said Bolt when asked if he will compete in London – and perhaps also Glasgow 2014 – next year. “But that is up to the tax people.”