November 24, 2009

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Nov. 30. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.Encores happen in sport, this we know. Michael Jordan kept winning NBA titles. Joe Montana kept winning Super Bowls. Lance Armstrong kept winning Tours de France. Greatness once established is proved again and solidified, and a legend's resume grows longer. But in 2009, Usain Bolt did something far more remarkable -- he improved on the impossible.

Think back to 2008 and the Beijing Olympics. In the span of four days Bolt won gold medals in both the 100 and 200 meters, breaking the world record in each. He took the 100 record down to 9.69 seconds despite slowing to style at least 15 meters before the finish. His 200 was more stunning: Bolt ran every inch of the race and finished in 19.30 seconds, .02 faster than MichaelJohnson's seemingly unassailable world record from the 1996 Olympic Games. As a final flourish, Bolt tacked on a world record and another gold medals in the 4x100-meter relay.

Overnight Bolt become one of the most famous athletes on the earth. He seized the struggling sport of track and field and hauled it back into the international spotlight, almost all by himself. (Let's ignore, for purposes of this discussion, the elephant in the room, which would be the issue of whether Bolt -- or any track and field athlete -- is using undetectable performance-enhancing substances to achieve his results. We can ignore it, because it doesn't seem to have affected Bolt's popularity). Bolt was not only historically fast (in way that that made a ten-second event riveting to watch on television), but also historically fun. He danced before and after races and in general treated Olympic finals as if they were a night spent clubbing back home in Kingston. He was a star in every regard.

But he also seemed to have quickly bumped his head up against the ceiling of greatness. Track nuts innately understood that his 100-meter finish slowdown portended faster times in that race. How much faster was subject to speculation. Bolt seemed to have put the 200 out of reach, even for himself, if only because Johnson's record had been presumed to be unbreakable and Bolt had broken it. Marks like that seldom fall twice. (Remember, Bob Beamon never matched his epic Mexico City long jump).

And then there was this: After Bolt's 100-meter preening in Beijing, multiple Olympic sprint medalist Frankie Fredericks told me: ``I did stupid things when I was young, too. You think it will always be easy and you'll never have injuries and you'll always be strong and healthy. But this is not the way it works. You have to take chances when you have them.''

In the months after Beijing, you could have made a very strong case that Bolt had peaked at age 21, and that he would spend the rest of his career trying to live up to one incredible week, without ever succeeding. And there would have been no shame in this, because that one week was epic.

Which brings us to 2009. Bolt spent most of the summer running good -- not great -- times under lousy conditions. Then in late August he came to the world championships and replicated Beijing. He broke both the 100- and 200-meter world records and added a gold medal in the 4X100-meter relay. He confirmed fans' suspicions by running through the line in the 100, but took the record unimaginably deep -- to 9.58 seconds. Tyson Gay ran 9.71, the third-fastest time in history, and looked like he was running in the junior varsity race.

Again, four days later Bolt ran the 200. Where in China he had slipped under Johnson's revered record, this time he crushed it, running 19.19 seconds. At the finish, NBC's Ato Boldon shouted into his open mike: ``Oh my God!'' Anyone with affection for track and field shared his reaction. He landed not only on SportsCenter, but also on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, again bringing track to a broad audience, but this time in a non-Olympic year.

A year ago I advocated that Bolt be named Sportsman of the Year for saving track and field from oblivion. And there is no doubt that he continues to carry the sport swiftly on his back. But this time he should be honored for something more primal, for evolving a sport and then evolving it again, for twice taking sprinting into a distant future sooner than anyone could have conceived. And best of all, for leaving the feeling that there is more to come.

Agree with this selection? Tell us your Sportsman pick here.

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