It took a lightning bolt to rouse the Bird's Nest on Wednesday night. Usain Bolt, to be exact.
The Jamaican sprinter electrified the capacity crowd for a second night, burning the track with another otherworldly performance at the Olympics. He won the 200 meters in 19.30, breaking Michael Johnson's 12-year-old world record. Once he crossed the finish line, the celebration began.
But for most of the night, the National Stadium was a tomb, the crowd filled with the living dead, a crowd that seemed to be lulled into lethargy. Perhaps it was the heat and humidity.
The most likely reason was that many Chinese were still experiencing a Liu Xiang hangover. The national icon, who apologized for pulling out of the 110-meter hurdles on Tuesday, was expected to run in Wednesday's semifinals. Forget Houhai, Sanlitun or any of the other party areas in Beijing. The Bird's Nest was supposed to be Beijing's biggest party every night Liu competed. As one Chinese fan on the Olympic Green said the day he withdrew, "Liu Xiang was our only hope in track and field." The disappointment was palpable.
The Chinese, many of whom paid a premium for track and field tickets, now had to settle for a night of watching other athletes celebrate on the podium. The biggest thrill of the night for China was Zhang Wenxiu's bronze medal in the women's hammer toss. But even the cheers were more subdued. The Middle Kingdom had set the gold standard — and anything less would get a less hearty "jia you," the official cheer of China. (It means "let's go!")
Before Bolt bolted into the history books, the loudest cheers were reserved for China's two other athletes who were competing. Liu Feiliang in the pole vault. And Shi Dongpeng in the 110-meter hurdles.
Maybe Shi can carry the flame, fans thought, as they stood on their feet, praying for a miracle. Hoping that Shi could summon the magic of Liu Xiang and qualify for the final. But it was not meant to be. The hurdler finished in fifth place and tumbled to the track at the finish line. The crowd groaned — it's an amazing experience to hear 90,000 thousand people sigh at the same time — when the scoreboard showed he was .02 seconds out of fourth place.
The fans returned to sitting on their hands, politely clapping when asked to, or when cheerleaders posted around the stadium led cheers. The sweetest moment, however, was when fans around the stadium urged on Soe Min Thu of Myanmar when he fell more than a half lap behind in the 5,000-meter race. It was like the wave, but with applause, as Min Thu made his way around the track.
But this night belonged to Bolt. The crowd astutely knew this was the race of the night, the star sprinter that could make up for Liu's absence. People stood up for the race, and light bulbs flooded the track when the official pulled the starting gun. The roar grew louder and louder as Bolt reached maximum velocity, made his turn on the straightaway and blew away the field for his second gold medal of the Games.
The Jamaican star, who started to celebrate before crossing the finish line in his 100-meter victory, laid on the track for a few minutes as the stadium lavished him with applause. Bolt's run lasted less than 20 seconds but he was taking his time posing for photographers on his victory lap. His celebration was cocky and flashy — and the Chinese, from a culture that usually looks down on those traits, loved it. Fans also serenaded Bolt with "Happy Birthday" when the announcer revealed it was the sprinter's birthday.
The stadium was finally alive, the cheers leaving the roof and echoing down the Olympic Green. Perhaps the Chinese can adopt a Jamaican anthem.
No Liu, no cry.