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Taking in Bolt's record onslaught

We asked the Sports Illustrated writers who covered the Beijing Olympics to leave us with their indelible memory of the Games.

I was the bird's eye in the Bird's Nest. Six rows from the top of the uppermost deck of Beijing's National Stadium, I looked far, far down on the opening night of track and field. Dripping sweat from the oppressive heat and the 15 flights of stairs I'd climbed, I fanned myself with a list of events and watched a pair of swallows fly past.

Down on the track, a rarer bird perched: Usain Bolt, his 6-foot-5 frame folded into the blocks. Boom! The gun, and he was gone, free of the field in maybe a dozen gaping strides. He slowed at 70 meters, half-jogged across the line and still won in a swift 9.92 seconds-the most impressive 100-meter heat I'd seen since FlorenceGriffithJoyner's mind-bending 10.49 world record at the 1988 U.S. Olympic trials.

The popcorn-munching Chinese fans around me seemed only mildly impressed; they were more focused on a countrywoman trying to qualify in the discus. But I'd been waiting to see Bolt race ever since he ran a world-record 9.72 in the 100 in New York in June. Having covered or closely followed nearly three decades of World's Fastest Humans, I now knew: This guy was different from all of them.

I didn't realize yet how different. As the next week unfolded, and Bolt became the first sprinter in history to win and set world records-each more stunning than the last -- in the Olympic 100, 200 and 4X100 -- relay finals, he turned into the most galvanizing, playful, buzzed-about athlete at the Games. His pre-race bow-and-arrow shtick made air archery the Olympics' signature gesture. A Chinese reporter who interviewed me about the Games could scarce contain herself when asking, "Usain Bolt-how does he do it?"

As if I knew. Weaving my way on four humid nights from the Ice Cube (the frigidly air-conditioned Main Press Center) past the Water Cube to the Bird's Nest, dodging the two sets of humanity clogging the route-those posing for photos in front of the spectacular venues and those taking the photos, I tried to figure Bolt out. Did his jaw-dropping speed come from genetics? Stride length? Doping? Thoughts of FloJo nagged at me, but I wanted to believe that Bolt was no more than a freak of athleticism, a 100-year flood of sprinting talent.

And so I trudged up the 15 flights of stairs one last time to my Bird's Nest aerie, watched Bolt crush his rivals on the third leg of the relay, saw his invisible celebratory arrow flying out of the stadium. "That was the greatest athletic feat I've ever seen," said the Scottish fan sitting next to me. "That Bolt is in a different class, isn't he?"

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