BEIJING (Reuters) - Athletics got the hero it has been craving for years when Usain Bolt lit up the Bird's Nest with his brilliance, his 100 meters victory ensconced as one of the images of the 2008 Olympic Games.
After years of one depressing doping scandal after another, the Games began with many leading figures warning that athletics was in real danger of alienating its fans forever and with it, losing its place as the heart and soul of the Olympics.
Bolt's stunning performances, and the excitement of the build-up to his races, ensured that, for sprinting at least, things are looking good.
When the 100 meters heats began on the first morning of competition lips were being licked at the prospect of the three-way showdown between Bolt, world champion Tyson Gay and former world record holder Asafa Powell, the three fastest men ever.
Yet by the time the final came round the following night there was only going to be one winner.
Even so, Bolt's performance in breaking his own world record in 9.69 seconds, and the chest-thumping celebratory way he did it, thrilled the world.
When he put his head down to drive through the line and erase Michael Johnson's untouchable 12-year-old mark in the 200 meters with a run of 19.30 seconds, any doubters would have realized they were in the presence of greatness.
A third gold and a third crushing world record after an eye-defying third leg in the 4x100m relay completed his haul.
Bolt, who turned 22 the day after his 200 win and had 91,000 people singing him "Happy Birthday" as he stood on the podium, is a performer and a character most sports would die for.
However, IOC president Jacques Rogge chided him for a lack of sportsmanship for tearing off on his victory lap instead of waiting to shake hands with his beaten opponents. Bolt said he just wanted to have fun.
"Everybody should enjoy their job. The crowd loves it. They look for me to see me coming out. I just go out and give them a show," Bolt said.
In contrast, Lamine Diack, head of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), had nothing but praise for the jewel in his midst.
Diack said Bolt had had more impact than any other athlete in Games history.
"He is great for our sport, he can help to build up our sport," Diack said. "He was fantastic, we are very privileged to have this."
Bolt's triple whammy was only part of a fantastic athletics program for Jamaica, who took a clean sweep of the four sprint titles en route to six golds and 11 medals in all.
Their success, and Bolt's superhuman performances, invariably raised the question of doping, particularly as the 100m has been dogged horribly in that regard for so long.
Bolt, however, who won the world junior championships 200m at 15 and was the first junior to break 20 seconds, has hardly come out of the blue, and he dismissed the idea out of hand.
"I've been tested so many times in the competition I've lost count," he said. "We know we're good, we know we're clean. We work hard and any time you want to test us, it's okay."
The IAAF has been carrying out extensive testing in Jamaica, which does not have its own accredited anti-doping system, and has reported no suspicious patterns.
Other countries' athletes preparing to return to a glorious welcome were Ethiopia and Kenya, who were imperious in the distance events.
Ethiopian duo Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba both took the 10,000-5,000 meters double while Kenya claimed five golds, capped when Sammy Wanjiru brought the east African country their long-desired first marathon title.
Jamaica's six golds left them third in the athletics medal standings behind Russia (six, but more silvers) and the United States (seven) but it was not all rosy for the sport's superpower.
For the first time since 1976, apart from the boycotted 1980 Games, they failed to win any of the four sprints and things reached a new low when both 4x100m relay teams dropped the baton in the heats.
They did come back with double gold in the 4x400 relays to finish on a high but U.S. Track and Field head Doug Logan said a comprehensive review of their performance would be held.
(Editing by Alison Williams)