Is Usain Bolt really a superhero?

Story highlights

  • Mike Downey: Usain Bolt is a lovable athlete, a character -- and a tornado
  • He says Bolt and Michael Phelps are both older Olympians at peak of athletic powers

Mike Downey is a former Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune columnist and a frequent contributor to CNN. The views expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Usain Bolt has a superhero's name. If a clever writer from Marvel or DC Comics wanted to come up with a new character who had lightning-fast speed and created a worldwide buzz, Usain Bolt would get the job done.

Let's face it, when he zoomed down a stadium track with "BOLT" on his bib Sunday night in Rio de Janeiro, becoming the first three-time winner of the 100-meter dash in the Olympic Games, that was what we wanted to see. Bolt!
    Mike Downey
    Perhaps the biggest Brazil thrills we've had during these games have come from the most amazing sprinter and the most amazing swimmer in Olympic history, a pair of preposterously tall, hard-abbed physical marvels, Jamaica's Usain Bolt and America's Michael Phelps, who while getting older (29 and 31, respectively) just keep on getting better.
    Phelps has accumulated more gold medals than anyone, nearly two dozen. Bolt has now won seven, with a good shot this week at two more.
    How could we not love him? He is the king of Kingston, the most famous man on his island, superstar of the Daily Gleaner's sports page, more popular than reggae or rum. He is a comically colorful character whose mom once told the Gleaner that her son loves nothing better than to "clown around," having a good time, not taking anything all too seriously.
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      Usain Bolt wins historic 3rd straight 100m gold


    Usain Bolt wins historic 3rd straight 100m gold 02:07
    He strikes funny poses. He dances. He takes selfies with the crowds. He wears a pair of golden shoes. He pretends he's the god Apollo, standing there flexing his muscles or pretending to aim an arrow at the sky.
    I first encountered this character in China. He came running out of Beijing's thick smog at the 2008 Summer Olympics like a tornado blowing through Oklahoma. He did everything but stir up dust. A human whirlwind, that was him.
    What a character, too. "He danced for us before the race and he danced for us after the race," said Shawn Crawford, an American who won the silver medal in the 200 meters that night. Bolt was busy dazzling the universe, even as he celebrated his 22nd birthday.
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    I wondered where he came up with that dance. It turned out Ding Ding, Overmars, Johnny Bravo, Mundo and Sir Yummy taught him. "Who?" I asked. They were flamboyantly nicknamed guys from a Jamaican dance troupe called the Ravers Clavers who had created a dance known as the Nuh Linga, and suddenly it belonged to Bolt.
    I wondered where he came up with that speed. It turned out he had a secret ingredient, like Popeye having spinach. He ate yams. His dad, Wellesley Bolt, said that all his life, his son Usain had a great fondness for eating yams. They gave him strength. He grew up to be 6 feet 5 inches, with the muscular arms of many a football player, not the scrawny arms of many a runner.
    Bolt sped through the 100 meters in Beijing at ludicrous speed: 9.69 seconds. To give you even a remote notion of how fast that is, the men's 100 at the first modern Olympics, way back in 1896 in Greece, was won by a Boston law student named Thomas Burke, whose winning time was 12 seconds flat.
    Ever since then, "World's Fastest Human" was an unofficial title given to the winner of the 100. A number of fairly famous people came along to claim it. One who won it in 1924, an Englishman by the name of Harold Abrahams, had his story told in the Oscar-winning movie "Chariots of Fire." In 1936, the great Jesse Owens put a great big frown on Adolf Hitler's face at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin.
    And later came the likes of "Bullet" Bob Hayes, a sprinter who became a Dallas Cowboys football pass-catcher. And the incredible Carl Lewis, someone I got to witness winning gold medals in the 100 in both 1984 and 1988. Lewis was an extrovert in his own fashion, modeling himself after Michael Jackson in certain manner and dress. He had a polarizing personality that some found arrogant while others found him simply self-confident.
    Bolt can relate. Not everybody adores him. He strikes some as too confident, too outrageous. But he puts his feet where his mouth is. "I told you I'd win" was one of the first public comments he made after Sunday night's triumph.
    For a few seconds there, we weren't sure. Bolt came out of the starting blocks a fraction late, being extra careful not to jump the gun, commit a false start and get disqualified. Justin Gatlin, who had won the 100 at the 2004 Athens Olympics before the great Bolt came along, broke from the blocks a bit more quickly than Bolt did. He ran his heart out, but in the final footsteps of the race, Bolt's long strides surpassed him. Gatlin was quite a runner still at age 34 but remained an also-ran in this company, a runner-up.
    Bolt will turn 30 before these Olympics are over. He became the second-oldest man ever to win the Olympic 100, which was won by a 32-year-old Linford Christie in 1992. For all we know, Bolt will turn up again in 2020, panning for more gold.
    He still has a 200 meters and a relay race in Rio to go. The fans in the stands will chant, "Bolt! Bolt! Bolt!" as they did Sunday night, knowing a superhero when they see one.