Faster Than Fast

Aug. 25, 2008
Aug. 25, 2008

Table of Contents
Aug. 25, 2008

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?

A GOLF CART racedthrough wide, clean tunnels under the Bird's Nest, Beijing's Olympic Stadium.Volunteers jumped aside, lest they be flattened. Banners flapped in the littlevehicle's slipstream, and passengers gripped tiny handrails. Usain Bolt slidright and left on the cushion of the passenger seat, the fastest man alivegoing even faster. He wore Jamaica's colors—green, yellow and black—on aT-shirt, and from his neck hung the Olympic 100-meter gold medal. "Weshould race a 100 in the cart," said Bolt's agent, Ricky Simms, and Boltlaughed in a youthful baritone from deep in his chest.

This is an article from the Aug. 25, 2008 issue

"That wouldbe 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 thatwould drive Bolt back to the Olympic Village.

Fast has newmeaning now. Bolt did not just win the gold medal last Saturday night, he ranaway 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 metersacross a concrete courtyard from where Michael Phelps had redefined greatnessin 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-bornCanadian who won the 100 meters at the 1996 Olympics and whose Olympic-recordtime of 9.84 Bolt obliterated. "Usain is amazing, absolutelyamazing."

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

He is young andat the same time old at the game. A Jamaican schoolboy legend (no small titleon a sprint-centric island) in his early teens and a world junior champion inthe 200 meters at 15, Bolt did not attempt the 100 on a world-class level untillast summer and broke the world record in only his fourth final. The Olympicswere just his eighth final, and he is speeding the evolution of his event justas Bob Beamon advanced his (the long jump in 1968) and Michael Johnson his (the200 in '96). "We're looking at the future," said four-time Olympicmedalist and NBC sprint analyst Ato Boldon. "This kid is something likewe've never seen before."

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

Bolt is alsoexpected to anchor Jamaica's 4√ó100-meter relay on Friday night. He laughed whenhe looked ahead, pulling on the brim of a Jamaican team baseball cap. "Ifeel very good, man," he said. "Yeah, yeah. I feel strong."

On a breezyevening some 24 hours later, a trio of Jamaican women added a punctuation markto Bolt's feat when Shelly-Ann Fraser won the women's 100-meter gold medal andSherone Simpson and Kerron Stewart finished in a dead heat for silver, thefirst women's 100-meter medal sweep in Olympic history. Despite having threesprinters in the field, the U.S. was denied a spot on the podium for the firsttime since 1976 (although 2000 became a shutout when Marion Jones was laterstripped of her gold medals for admitted steroid use).

"TheJamaicans showed up, and we totally didn't," said Lauryn Williams, thedefending silver medalist who placed fourth. "It's very humbling."

Fraser ran aripping 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 vacated10.75 in 2000.) While many Jamaican sprinters have attended college and runtrack in the U.S., Fraser, like Bolt, instead stayed home to train with thegrowing MVP Track Club in Kingston. She came to prominence while runningbarefoot in the Jamaican primary schools' (12-and-under) championship, and herOlympic time was a personal best by .07. "It was the performance of alifetime," Fraser squealed afterward. "I can't stop smiling; my bracesare hurting me."

BOLT'S TITLE wasthe first for Jamaica in the Games' signature sprint. (Like Bailey, LinfordChristie of Great Britain, the gold medalist in 1992, was born in Jamaica butcompeted for another nation; Jamaicans have won three silver medals.) Bolt cameto Beijing as chalk. The depth of this favorite's role depended on ahandicapper's belief that Tyson Gay of the U.S. and Asafa Powell of Jamaicawere capable of turning the race into the three-man showdown that track fanshad anticipated since the spring.

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

Gay waseliminated in the semifinals. Afterward, his voice catching, Gay said, "Igave it my best; I just didn't come through. I just didn't have that pop likeat USAs. I feel like I let [my family] down." Gay could still run for theU.S. in the 4√ó100-meter relay, a unit that will have its hands very full withJamaica.

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

Bolt, meanwhile,treated the Games like a night in one of the Kingston clubs he loves. He roomedwith Jamaican decathlete Maurice Smith in the Olympic Village. "All I didwas relax," Bolt said after the 100. "I ate my nuggets at McDonald's, Ichilled, 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 isnot into getting on airplanes," said Bolt. "It's O.K. I know the wholecountry is behind me."

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

"They werelike little kids before the race," said Simms. "No nerves atall."

Minutes before10:30 p.m. in China, the stadium pulsed with the emotions that always precede a100-meter final. "Groundshaking," said Walter Dix, the 22-year-old U.S.sprinter who would run to a bronze medal, three months after his graduationfrom Florida State. Bolt ran through a series of comical, self-motivatinggestures, firing imaginary six-shooters, pointing with two fingers at theJAMAICA on his jersey, pulling his hands apart high and low as if shooting anarrow into the night sky. He recalled the words Bailey told him last spring:"The crowd is your friend."

Bolt came awayclean if not brilliantly fast. Thirty meters out he was in a close fourthplace, but his transition to top speed was otherworldly. "I felt myselfpulling away from the rest of the field, and Usain was accelerating away fromme," 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 roaringnoise. 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. Hedidn'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 agold medal too."

HIS ASCENDANCEhas been swifter than even his countrymen imagined. "I knew he would runfast if he tried the 100 meters," said Michael Frater, a silver medalist atthe 2005 world championships who finished sixth in Beijing. "But to runlike 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 TrackNation waits nervously for the result of Bolt's every drug test; Powellcomplained before the competition that all the Jamaicans had been blood- andurine-tested too often, as if targeted.)

Behind Bolt,Thompson held together for second and Dix closed impressively. A year ago Dixhad shocked observers (and cynics) by turning down lucrative offers to turnprofessional and instead returned to Tallahassee for his senior year. Hestruggled with hamstring injuries though the spring. "If you had told me inApril that I'd get a bronze medal in the Olympics, I would have beenshocked," Dix said. "It's sweeter now that I'm here." The bronze isconsolation for the U.S., but an auspicious start to the international careerof 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. onSaturday; expatriates living in the U.S. asked islanders to put phones up totheir televisions so that they could listen. (NBC showed the race on tapedelay, more than 13 hours after its conclusion.) Shortly after the finish,street-side sound systems blasted music into the afternoon, commencing a longparty. In an even larger demographic, two of the 100-meter finalists wereAmericans, but the other six were from the Caribbean, stunning dominance from atiny corner of the world.

But Bolt standsalone, a subset of one.

"The Jamaicans showed up, and we totallydidn't," said Lauryn Williams of the U.S. "It's VERY HUMBLING."
PHOTOPhotograph by Heinz KluetmeierFOR STARTERS Bolt (4) was nothing special out of the blocks, but halfway into the 100 he had the lead and was already pulling away from the field.PHOTOJOHN BIEVER NOCONTEST Bolt was so far ahead (left) that he turned to acknowledge the crowdbefore the finish line; Dix (above) closed fast to get thebronze.PHOTOBILL FRAKES[See caption above]PHOTOBOB ROSATOHAIL JAMAICA Fraser (third from right) led Stewart (third from left) and Simpson (far right) across the finish line in the first medal sweep of an Olympic women's 100 meters.