WATCH: Usain Bolt delivers in role of Rio's Olympic saviour

WATCH: Usain Bolt delivers in role of Rio's Olympic saviour

Overshadowed by interminable drug test controversies and overlooked by the benevolent figure of Christ the Redeemer, the Rio Olympics spread its arms wide open to embrace its true saviour on Sunday night.

With cheers for the chosen one and boos for cartoon villain Justin Gatlin, a city that had been slow on the uptake for athletics saved its carnival spirit for arguably the greatest ringmaster the sport has known.

He duly delivered with a flashy smile and no end of trademark lightning poses, giving a Games dredged in so much frustration and controversy a ray of green and gold sunshine which may single-handedly light its way for four years to come.

The importance of his win cannot be overstated, given the impact of its likely alternative - victory instead in its blue riband event for a man who has twice been banned for drug tests, just as the sport is lurching through a sewage of recriminations and state-wide bans.

The rolling chants of "Bolt, Bolt, Bolt!" began spreading around the rapidly filling arena even before the Jamaican superstar first appeared on the track to prepare for his semi-final.

He accomplished his first mission in the manner of a man undertaking a half-hearted Sunday stroll, easing to a near halt and grinning across at the camera lenses yet still recording a season's best time of 9.86 seconds.

It brought to mind memories of Bolt's seminal run in the 2008 Olympic final, when he slowed to celebrate yards before the line yet still lowered his own world record to a remarkable 9.69.

If a sense of something historic was sweeping around the Brazilian bleachers it was helped by Wayde Van Niekerk's blistering 400m world record less than an hour before Bolt was due back on the track.

If anything was going to win the Brazilian fans over to athletics it was surely this. Not only did they have a universal superhero but also a cut-out-and-keep cartoon villain in the shape of Gatlin.

Where Bolt had milked the cheers of the fans after his semi-final heat, Gatlin, slower in 9.94, shot over the finish line and straight up the tunnel without breaking stride, boos from a sizeable number of home fans ringing in his ears.

It begged comparisons with the split loyalties which preceded the 'Rumble in the Jungle', with Muhammad Ali courting the cheers of the besotted Zairean masses who by contrast needed no encouragement to anoint the ogreish George Foreman public enemy number one.

And the Brazilian fans were not shy to expose their loyalties, loudly booing and whistling the American as he stalked out for his individual entrance, and again during the lane-by-lane introductions.

If the opinions of the home fans were shaped more by the desire to buy into the Bolt miracle than any particular moral issue with Gatlin's failed tests, there will have been many in the corridors of power feeling distinctly uneasy when they lined up on the blocks.

If it would be an exaggeration to say that a Gatlin win would have destroyed the sport, it would certainly have provided an unseemly epitaph to the seemingly never-ending series of doping controversies and the cack-handed way in which they have been dealt with by the various layers of authority.

WATCH: Usain Bolt delivers in role of Rio's Olympic saviour

Bolt, whether he likes it or not - and he probably does - he is held up as the example of all that is good about athletics, the untainted standard bearer holding it aloft in the palm of a single skyward hand while all around him starts to creak and sink.

A sluggish start by the Jamaican hardly settled the nerves of those craving a Bolt win, but as far as he was concerned it simply added to the drama. He stretched through in the final yards, Gatlin trailing, in a relatively modest time of 9.81 seconds. There was no record but unlike Beijing, the time didn't matter.

By the time Bolt had disappeared to begin his endless round of TV interviews, his name was still rolling around the bleachers loud enough that all those in the favelas that push right up to the Olympic Stadium's doorstep will have been left in no doubt about the destiny of the Games' greatest race.

Ali's old trainer Angelo Dundee used to like to say that the boxer could parachute down into any country on earth and wherever he landed, the first person he met would know his name and break out into a beaming smile.

It is tempting though probably a little simplistic to suggest the same thing would happen if Bolt were brave enough to venture out into Rio's dark streets. That he could single-handedly stop the favela gunfire and swoop Superman-style to stop muggers in the act.

Such is the extent of the myth that Usain Bolt has cultivated. However preposterous, it is one there is no harm buying into. Tonight the sport anointed its super-human saviour.

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