I've followed track and field for a long time, but have never seen another athlete who's come close to capturing the public like Usain Bolt, who repeated as Olympic 200 champion today.
Bryan Oldfield, the shot putter from the 1970's who revolutionized the event with the double spin, set a world record of 75 feet which was disallowed because of his association with professional track. Oldfield finally set an officially accepted world record with 72' 9" in 1984, at age 38. When asked by an interviewer how he did it, he said that he had had a "throw-gasm." Oldfield appeared in Playgirl in 1975, and declared "When God created man, he wanted him to look like me." Oldfield could reportedly high jump 6' 6", and once ran 80 meters in 8.8 seconds. He sometimes smoked in between throws at competitions. He was a controversial figure, not always beloved by the public or his competitors. But he knew how to make a joke out of his size and strength and garnered a lot of attention while he was competing.
Sergei Bubka, the Russian pole vaulter active in the 80's and 90's, exuded a certain robust virility that was appealing. He had the speed of a sprinter, and the upper body strength of a gymnast. This combination allowed him to clear twenty feet, a height no man has cleared since. Bubka also had the demeanor of a Spetsnaz operative. He was widely regarded with awe, if not affection.
Here is Bubka as he looks now:
Eamonn Coghlan, the great Irish miler from the 70's and 80's who set the world indoor record for that event several times, was a very popular athlete. (I put a recent picture of him right below Bubka's because I was struck by their similarity. One has a Slavic cast to his face, the other an Irish one, but even in middle age, both look like men just spoiling to get into a fight.)
Coghlan was known as the "Chairman of the Boards" for his dominance indoors. There was no one else who could get the crowd at Madison Square Garden on its feet the way he did. (That a lot of Irish-Americans always showed up to the Millrose Games may have helped.) But Coghlan was also beloved by the folks at home, and now serves as an Irish Senator.
There have been a number of great sprinters before Bolt, though I can't think of any I'd consider charismatic. Michael Johnson, whose 200 record was beaten by Bolt and who still holds the 400 record, had a workmanlike personality. He was exciting on the track, but dull off it. Carl Lewis, the great sprinter and long jumper from the 80's and 90's, was utterly charisma-free. (Unless you consider being bitchily self-righteous charismatic.)
Long distance runners are almost by definition introverted and dweeby (and East or North African, meaning, there will probably be a language barrier as well).
In any case, I've never seen a track athlete who captures the public's fancy the way Bolt has. He is not tough like Bubka or Coghlan, nor witty like Oldfield. But he has a certain loose-limbed playfulness that is all his own. He is the star attraction wherever he goes, and even has to have teammates act as quasi-bodyguards in the Olympic Village. Pictures of him in his famous archer pose greet visitors at Jamaican airports, and European meet organizers know that his appearance guarantees a sellout crowd.
Maybe the ultimate accolade is that the other sprinters, generally a trash-talking lot, never have a bad word to say about him.
Addendum, a couple days later: No, the ultimate accolade is actually that so many other athletes in other sports seem to be imitating his archer pose now.