Faster Than Fast

Usain Bolt won the 100 meters in world-record time with such ease that you have to wonder: How much lower than 9.69 can he go?
Usain Bolt won the 100 meters in world-record time with such ease that you have to wonder: How much lower than 9.69 can he go?
August 24, 2008

A golf cart raced through wide, clean tunnels under the Bird's Nest, Beijing's Olympic Stadium. Volunteers jumped aside, lest they be flattened. Banners flapped in the little vehicle's slipstream, and passengers gripped tiny handrails. Usain Bolt slid right and left on the cushion of the passenger seat, the fastest man alive going even faster. He wore Jamaica's colors—green, yellow and black—on a T-shirt, and from his neck hung the Olympic 100-meter gold medal. "We should race a 100 in the cart," said Bolt's agent, Ricky Simms, and Bolt laughed in a youthful baritone from deep in his chest.

"That would be fast, man," he said. "Very fast." They whipped around a corner, buzzed up a concrete ramp and into the warm China night, bound for a car that would drive Bolt back to the Olympic Village.

Fast has new meaning now. Bolt did not just win the gold medal last Saturday night, he ran away from the field in 9.69 seconds and broke his 11-week-old world record by .03 of a second, despite letting up and celebrating the final 10 long strides, making a joke of the concepts of competition and record-keeping. Not 400 meters across a concrete courtyard from where Michael Phelps had redefined greatness in water, Bolt did likewise on dry earth. "They are both freaks of nature; there is no other way to put it," said Donovan Bailey, the Jamaican-born Canadian who won the 100 meters at the 1996 Olympics and whose Olympic-record time of 9.84 Bolt obliterated. "Usain is amazing, absolutely amazing."

Now Bolt, just 21 years old and 6'5", stepped from his undersized chariot in a parking lot lit by tall, ornate streetlamps. Volunteer workers in logo shirts stared and whispered. "This is why you run," Bolt said. "Definitely, man. All the time I've been running, I dreamed about getting on the biggest stage and being a champion someday. Here it is. Big feat, man, big feat."

He is young and at the same time old at the game. A Jamaican schoolboy legend (no small title on a sprint-centric island) in his early teens and a world junior champion in the 200 meters at 15, Bolt did not attempt the 100 on a world-class level until last summer and broke the world record in only his fourth final. The Olympics were just his eighth final, and he is speeding the evolution of his event just as Bob Beamon advanced his (the long jump in 1968) and Michael Johnson his (the 200 in '96). "We're looking at the future," said four-time Olympic medalist and NBC sprint analyst Ato Boldon. "This kid is something like we've never seen before."

The 100 meters was not nearly the conclusion of Bolt's Olympic work. He was scheduled to run the 200-meter final on Wednesday night, and Johnson's 12-year-old world record of 19.32 seconds, once thought untouchable, was expected to receive its first serious assault. "If he gets someone to push him through the corner [turn], we could see something unbelievable," said Bailey. "I'm thinking between 19.22 and 19.26."

Bolt is also expected to anchor Jamaica's 4×100-meter relay on Friday night. He laughed when he looked ahead, pulling on the brim of a Jamaican team baseball cap. "I feel very good, man," he said. "Yeah, yeah. I feel strong."

On a breezy evening some 24 hours later, a trio of Jamaican women added a punctuation mark to Bolt's feat when Shelly-Ann Fraser won the women's 100-meter gold medal and Sherone Simpson and Kerron Stewart finished in a dead heat for silver, the first women's 100-meter medal sweep in Olympic history. Despite having three sprinters in the field, the U.S. was denied a spot on the podium for the first time since 1976 (although 2000 became a shutout when Marion Jones was later stripped of her gold medals for admitted steroid use).

"The Jamaicans showed up, and we totally didn't," said Lauryn Williams, the defending silver medalist who placed fourth. "It's very humbling."

Fraser ran a ripping 10.78 with calm winds, the fastest final time in Olympic history. (Florence Griffith Joyner ran a wind-aided 10.54 in 1988 and Jones a vacated 10.75 in 2000.) While many Jamaican sprinters have attended college and run track in the U.S., Fraser, like Bolt, instead stayed home to train with the growing MVP Track Club in Kingston. She came to prominence while running barefoot in the Jamaican primary schools' (12-and-under) championship, and her Olympic time was a personal best by .07. "It was the performance of a lifetime," Fraser squealed afterward. "I can't stop smiling; my braces are hurting me."

Bolt's title was the first for Jamaica in the Games' signature sprint. (Like Bailey, Linford Christie of Great Britain, the gold medalist in 1992, was born in Jamaica but competed for another nation; Jamaicans have won three silver medals.) Bolt came to Beijing as chalk. The depth of this favorite's role depended on a handicapper's belief that Tyson Gay of the U.S. and Asafa Powell of Jamaica were capable of turning the race into the three-man showdown that track fans had anticipated since the spring.

But there were big issues for both. Gay, the 2007 world champion and U.S. Olympic trials winner in an American-record 9.77 seconds, was trying to regain sharpness after injuring his hamstring in the 200 meters at the trials on July 5 and missing four weeks of hard training. But that hill was too steep to climb. Gay struggled through the first two preliminaries. Expert observers saw a shell of the old Gay. "The guy who could pressure Bolt is Tyson," said former British Olympic sprinter Darren Campbell on Saturday morning before the semifinals. "But the Tyson who's here isn't really Tyson."

Gay was eliminated in the semifinals. Afterward, his voice catching, Gay said, "I gave it my best; I just didn't come through. I just didn't have that pop like at USAs. I feel like I let [my family] down." Gay could still run for the U.S. in the 4×100-meter relay, a unit that will have its hands very full with Jamaica.

Powell, 25, was visited by old demons. Fifth in the 2004 Olympics as the favorite, second in the '07 worlds as the favorite, he had hoped to shed his Olympic insecurities in Beijing. "Asafa is the baby of six children, so he has taken time to be strong," said Powell's oldest brother, Donovan, before the Games. "But I think it will be different this time." Alas, it was not. Powell, who had beaten Bolt at a race in Stockholm in late July, ran tight and finished fifth.

Bolt, meanwhile, treated the Games like a night in one of the Kingston clubs he loves. He roomed with Jamaican decathlete Maurice Smith in the Olympic Village. "All I did was relax," Bolt said after the 100. "I ate my nuggets at McDonald's, I chilled, I focused. That's all it is."

Bolt's mother, Jennifer, was the only family member who went to Beijing. His father, Wellesley, stayed home, in the north shore parish of Trelawny. "My dad is not into getting on airplanes," said Bolt. "It's O.K. I know the whole country is behind me."

Bolt easily won his semifinal heat in 9.85 seconds into a slight headwind, the fastest semifinal in Olympic history. As in each of his preliminary races, Bolt cruised much of the straightaway, uncatchable even in a low gear. "If you add up all four of his races, he barely ran a full 100 meters," said Bailey. "He expended very little energy." Before the final, Bolt stayed loose on the training track adjacent to the stadium. His coach, the relentlessly grumpy Glen Mills, jokingly leveled the threat that Bolt most fears. "If you don't win the gold medal, I'll make you run the 400," said Mills.

"They were like little kids before the race," said Simms. "No nerves at all."

Minutes before 10:30 p.m. in China, the stadium pulsed with the emotions that always precede a 100-meter final. "Groundshaking," said Walter Dix, the 22-year-old U.S. sprinter who would run to a bronze medal, three months after his graduation from Florida State. Bolt ran through a series of comical, self-motivating gestures, firing imaginary six-shooters, pointing with two fingers at the JAMAICA on his jersey, pulling his hands apart high and low as if shooting an arrow into the night sky. He recalled the words Bailey told him last spring: "The crowd is your friend."

Bolt came away clean if not brilliantly fast. Thirty meters out he was in a close fourth place, but his transition to top speed was otherworldly. "I felt myself pulling away from the rest of the field, and Usain was accelerating away from me," said Richard Thompson of Trinidad, who ran at LSU. Short of 50 meters, Bolt was in front and opening daylight. At least 15 meters shy of the finish, he turned to his right and spread his arms wide as if to embrace the roaring noise. He beat his chest once at the line and as the clock first flashed 9.68, and then adjusted to 9.69, Bolt raced around the bend to the backstretch. He didn't instantly see the record time and didn't care. "Not important," Bolt would say much later. "I had the record, I still have it. Now I have a gold medal too."

His ascendance has been swifter than even his countrymen imagined. "I knew he would run fast if he tried the 100 meters," said Michael Frater, a silver medalist at the 2005 world championships who finished sixth in Beijing. "But to run like this, with no wind behind him, I didn't think he would run that fast." (Of course, it is an unfortunate sidebar to every world record that Track Nation waits nervously for the result of Bolt's every drug test; Powell complained before the competition that all the Jamaicans had been blood- and urine-tested too often, as if targeted.)

Behind Bolt, Thompson held together for second and Dix closed impressively. A year ago Dix had shocked observers (and cynics) by turning down lucrative offers to turn professional and instead returned to Tallahassee for his senior year. He struggled with hamstring injuries though the spring. "If you had told me in April that I'd get a bronze medal in the Olympics, I would have been shocked," Dix said. "It's sweeter now that I'm here." The bronze is consolation for the U.S., but an auspicious start to the international career of Dix, who was also scheduled to run the 200.

Meanwhile, Jamaica rocked. The race was broadcast live in the country at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday; expatriates living in the U.S. asked islanders to put phones up to their televisions so that they could listen. (NBC showed the race on tape delay, more than 13 hours after its conclusion.) Shortly after the finish, street-side sound systems blasted music into the afternoon, commencing a long party. In an even larger demographic, two of the 100-meter finalists were Americans, but the other six were from the Caribbean, stunning dominance from a tiny corner of the world.

But Bolt stands alone, a subset of one.