Usain Bolt was 9 years old on that night, growing up tall and skinny -- "I was tall when I was little,'' says Bolt -- in Trelawny Parish on the north shore of Jamaica, an hour's drive from the vacation resorts of Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. He loved to play cricket with his friends, and if he was talented, he was also a little lazy.
But one afternoon two years later, he ran too fast at a school field day and found himself on the track team, because Jamaica will compel a sprinter to sprint. Somewhere a clock began ticking, counting down the life of Johnson's record, unseen and unknown, but inexorable.
At the age of 12, Bolt ran 52 seconds flat for 400 meters on a grass track in Manchester, Jamaica. He won the world junior 400-meter title at age 16, beating athletes who were four years older. He was impossibly precocious. "We knew what was coming,'' said Bert Cameron, a Jamaican national coach who was also the 400-meter world champion in 1983.
On Wednesday night in the Olympic Stadium called the Bird's Nest, Bolt ran 19.30 seconds to take down Johnson's world record. (In 1996 Johnson broke the previous record by .34.) Four days after celebrating 15 meters from the finish while winning the 100-meter gold medal in a world record 9.69 seconds, Bolt tore all the way through the line -- even dipping his chest slightly -- to win his second gold medal. He became the eighth man in history to complete the Olympic 100/200 double and the first to do it with two world records; not since Don Quarrie (also a Jamaican) in 1976 has one man simultaneously held both sprint records.
It was what Bolt intended to do. He was widely criticized after his 100-meter victory for flaunting the ease of his win. "Good TV, poor sportsmanship,'' said NBC analyst and four-time Olympian Ato Boldon.
"You have to take chances when you have them,'' Frankie Fredericks, another four-time Olympian, told SI.com before the 200 final.
On the walk to the warm-up track before the final, Bolt told his British agent, Ricky Simms, "Tonight I'm going to race the whole thing.''
Said Simms: "He realizes that these kind of opportunities don't come along very often.''
After the race, Bolt said, "I told myself, 'I'm going to leave everything on the track.' I did just that.''
The reality of the 100 meters is that it's contested in part with the legs and lungs and in part with the mind. Fast men crack. On the night before the 200 final, veteran Kim Collins of St. Kitts and Nevis was asked how to beat Bolt.
"Get in his head,'' Collins said. Even before Bolt won the 100 meters, long-time Los Angeles-based track agent Emanuel Hudson, who once handled Boldon and former world-record holder Maurice Greene, said, "Sprinters are too nice now. They need to get in Bolt's face and intimidate him.''
There is a flaw in that strategy. Bolt is too fast to frighten, and too cool to sweat. On Wednesday evening, as coach Glen Mills sent Bolt through a series of warmup drills, athlete and coach needled each other on a variety of topics, twisting each other's words into promises unkept and threats unmade. When Bolt came to the side of the field, he asked Simms about his flight reservations to Zurich next week. He talked about women and about music. His masseuse brought him Chicken McNuggets.
En route to the call room, the sprinters' final stop before they step onto the track for the race, Mills reached up to massage Bolt's shoulders. Bolt purposely fell flat on his face as if Mills' massage had somehow made him unconscious. He had done the same thing before a race in London in late July. Again, Bolt began laughing uncontrollably.
"All these other guys have these serious faces,'' says Simms. "Usain is just laughing and chilling. I'm telling you, the guy is just different.''
He's even more different on the track. It was widely known that American Shawn Crawford likes to jump opponents by blistering the turn portion of the 200. Bolt was in Lane 5 Wednesday night and Crawford in Lane 4, the perfect spot from which to attack Bolt and try to unhinge him. But at gun, it was Bolt who immediately pulled away from Crawford. "This guy is fast,'' Crawford recalled thinking.
By the time Bolt hit the straightaway with 100 meters to run, he was clear of the field, running into a modest headwind. "That's the big difference between this race and Michael Johnson's race,'' said former British Olympic sprinter Darren Campbell. "Michael was under pressure from Ato and Frankie. Usain was all alone.''
Yet, Bolt did precisely what Johnson did, accelerating almost unimaginably to the wire, drawing away with every stride. Johnson's margin of victory over Fredericks was .36 seconds; Bolt's was an unreal .52 over Churandy Martina of the Netherlands Antilles, who along with American Wallace Spearman was later disqualified for a lane violation (see sidebar, above).
Beaten opponents struggled for words afterward. "It's mind-blowing,'' said Christian Malcolm of Great Britain, who finished seventh and was moved up to fifth with the DQs. "I hear he looked impressive, but I didn't really get to see. He's 6-foot-5 and he runs like he's 5-9. He ran 9.6 in the 100, celebrating at 70 meters and he's been a 200-400 runner in the past. When he got in the 200 meters here, you knew he was going to run something very fast.''
Collins, who finished eighth and last and was elevated to sixth with the DQs, said, "It's ridiculous. I mean, come on. How fast can you go before records can't be broken? We thought the 100 record could possibly go to 9.6, but we never thought the 200 record could be broken. I didn't think it would happen while I was still running. How fast can a human being run before there is no more going fast?''
The question was meant as a sort of philosophical rumination. Yet, with Bolt in possession of both world records, and so young and fast and fearless, it seems almost certain that the 100 will fall further and possible that the 200 will. Johnson has suggested that Bolt chase the 400 as well, and while he doesn't like the event -- Mills chided him before the 100 meters by threatening to make him run a 400 soon if he didn't get the gold medal -- he has run it before.
He surely now faces suspicion. In '08, he has reduced his 100-meter personal best by .34 seconds and his 200-meter PR by .45 seconds, both incredible drops for an athlete running at a high level. His 100-meter doping test apparently came back clean and now he will be tested again. Even if that's clean, cynics will point out that Marion Jones never tested dirty and she was using the whole pharmacy. This is the burden that Bolt now carries in a sport trying to outrun its own recent history.
Say this: Bolt has the personality to deflect suspicion, even if he cannot disprove it. He delights in making the world a funny place rather than serious one. He watched the replay of his race on Wednesday night and said, "I was saying, 'I look cool. That guy looks fast.'''
Last Saturday night, I rode with Bolt from the stadium in a golf cart, screaming through tunnels and into the night. Bolt laughed as the cart screeched through turns; this, after signing autographs endlessly for stadium volunteers.
After his world record run on Wednesday, the Bird's Nest sound system blared Happy Birthday, in celebration of Bolt's 22nd birthday, which began at midnight.
And somewhere on the planet, a little boy played and ran fast, unaware of a future in which Bolt's record will be his. Because now we know for certain, the next record-holder always awaits.