LONDON -- By the time Usain Bolt's showboating, record-breaking, gold-gobbling act on the track got revved up at the Beijing Games four years ago, Michael Phelps already was firmly established as The Star of those Olympics.
Nothing anyone did -- even Bolt's unprecedented sweep of the 100, 200 and 400-meter relay with best-in-history times -- could possibly steal the spotlight from Phelps and his eight-gold performance in the pool.
Now it's a different story.
The first week of the London Olympics left a noticeable vacancy on center stage. As if on cue, up steps Bolt, the effervescent Jamaican sprinter who comes in with the most to win, and lose, as the 10-day track meet begins today at 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium.
Bolt wants nothing less than to become a "living legend" and is well aware that repeat victories in the two individual sprints will put him there. Of course, he'll need to be better than countryman Yohan Blake, who upset Bolt in the 100 and 200 finals at the Jamaican trials.
Win or not, Bolt is guaranteeing a good show.
He was coasting, thumping his chest before he crossed the finish line, when he set the world record in Beijing at 9.69 seconds. At the world championships a year later, he lowered it to 9.58. Bolt and his coach, Glen Mills, both say a 100-meter run in the 9.4-second range is possible, but only if the weather in London cooperates.
Beyond Bolt and Blake, nearly every main contender in the marquee event has a good story to tell. There are Americans Tyson Gay (oft-injured, still in search of an Olympic medal) and Justin Gatlin (2004 Olympic champion, back in '12 after a four-year doping ban), and another Jamaican, 29-year-old Asafa Powell, a former world-record holder who is still fast, but has been surpassed by his two younger countrymen over the past several years.
That's part of an ongoing duel between Jamaica and the United States. The showdown starts today with the opening heats of the women's 100, where Carmelita Jeter represents America's best chance.
The sport could use a boost. Track and field has spent the past decade or so weighed down by its own problems -- bad characters, vacated records and titles, the constant spectre of doping -- and in jeopardy of becoming second-rate material. No better time than the present to return to prominence, and with the vacuum created at the London Games, this could be the chance.
"I hope when the Olympics come around, and we're on the big stage, people will take an interest in a story and want to keep following," said U.S. sprinter Allyson Felix, who's looking for her first Olympic title in the 200 after two silvers. "It could bring some positive light onto track and field."
Since the Olympic cauldron began burning last week, the Olympics have been filled with stops and starts, some good, some bad, but nothing transcendent.
Phelps did manage to become the most-decorated Olympian ever, but neither he nor teammate Ryan Lochte has been anywhere close to dominant.
In gymnastics, American Jordyn Wieber was considered the potential queen of her sport until she missed qualifying for the all-around.
Actually, as it's turned out, the most talked-about sport early this week probably was badminton, because players were kicked out for apparently attempting to lose instead of win in an effort to get a more favorable spot in the next round.
What these Olympics really could use as they head into the second week is a jolt -- dare we say a Bolt -- of good news.
About a year ago, track fans might have pegged these Olympics as little more than a time trial and a chance to rewrite the record book for The World's Fastest Man.
But things have changed.
First, there was the false start at the world championships last year. That DQ opened the door for Bolt's training partner, Blake, who faced Bolt and beat him not once, but twice, at Jamaica's Olympic trials.
"There's no pressure," said Blake, who was given his nickname of "The Beast" by none other than Bolt. "Yes, I'm the fastest man in the world right now and some people say I'm the man to beat, but when we're on the line, it's different."olympics