FROM HIGH in thestadium, Michael Johnson set his record free. Twelve years earlier at theAtlanta Games he had run the 200 meters in 19.32 seconds to win the gold medal.Wise people predicted that Johnson would take that world record into very oldage, the king of his own hill, regally surveying the young sprinters who yearafter year would win races and medals but fall short of this one enduringstandard.
This is an article from the Sept. 1, 2008 issue
But last Wednesdaynight along came Usain Bolt of Jamaica, on the eve of his 22nd birthday. Hesqueezed his 6'5" body into the starting blocks in lane 5 for the final ofthe 200 meters at Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium. Four days earlier Bolt had wona gold medal in the 100 and, more remarkably, had broken his own world recordwith a time of 9.69 seconds, even while loosing an exuberant celebration atleast 15 meters from the finish line. Now the Nest buzzed withanticipation.
At the gun Boltmoved instantly, swallowing up the stagger on Brian Dzingal of Zimbabwe, onelane to his outside. Johnson, who was working as an analyst for the BritishBroadcasting Company, watched as his event was transformed. "When I saw hisstart, and then three or four strides out, " Johnson said, "I knew withthe way he was running the record was gone." Bolt thrashed his arms throughthe curve, snatching another stagger from Wallace Spearmon of the U.S. Hestraightened for the final 100 meters and began gritting his teeth, drivinginto the night air.
Track and fieldevents at the Olympic Games take place over nine days every four years, duringwhich athletes will be great—or they will be something else. They will beremembered or forgotten based on their performances. Weakness will bediscovered and exposed, and on rare and special occasions redemption will beoffered. It is a tiny quadrennial window during which the athletes cantranscend their narrow place in the sports culture.
LaShawn Merrittdid it. A willowy, 22-year-old U.S. 400-meter runner who has been chasing hispotential since leaving East Carolina after one semester in 2004, Merritt ran apersonal best of 43.75 seconds to win a gold medal. Bryan Clay of the U.S. didit too. Sleep-deprived on the second day of the decathlon after a restlessnight before, Clay endured to win the storied event by the largest margin since1972. Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards made their marks after falling short ofexpected gold medals in their individual events (Felix in the 200 meters,Richards in the 400) when they shared a stirring U.S. victory over Russia inthe 4√ó400-meter relay on the last night of the meet. "It doesn't make upfor anything else," said Felix. "But it was the right way tofinish."
They all laboredin Bolt's long shadow, though. He had come to the meet as a prodigy, but acuriosity as well, and his 100-meter performance, while breathtaking,engendered criticism. "Good TV, bad sportsmanship," said four-timeOlympic medalist and NBC analyst Ato Boldon. "A little bit too much of 'Youcan't run with me.'"
Frankie Fredericksof Namibia, another retired four-time Olympic sprint medalist and chairman ofthe International Olympic Committee's athletes' commission, said, "Most ofus, as track fans, would have liked to have seen what he would have run if hehad run through the finish. I did stupid things when I was young too. You thinkit will always be easy and you'll never have injuries and you'll always bestrong and healthy. But this is not the way it works. You have to take chanceswhen you have them."
Even IOC presidentJacques Rogge of Belgium, who had chosen not to criticize China for revokingthe visa of Olympic gold medalist and Darfur activist Joey Cheek, was not soreticent about Bolt. "He should show more respect for his competitors,"said Rogge.
Bolt answered inhis most eloquent manner—on the track. Hours before the 200 final he told hisagent, Ricky Simms, "Tonight I'm going to race the whole thing."
Johnson was deadright about Bolt's scorching start and the curve portion of the race.Unofficial splits had Bolt running 9.95 seconds for the first 100 meters.(Johnson ran the curve in 10.12 during his record performance.) In thestraightaway Bolt extended his lead with every stride through the finish, evendipping his torso as if he needed to beat some unseen opponent. The clock firstfroze at 19.31 seconds and then adjusted to 19.30. Bolt fell to his back incelebration, and the stadium quivered with noise.
Attentionimmediately turned to his future. Bolt is so young and so relatively green thattrack nuts are agog with speculation over how low he can go. (Others, ofcourse, are agog with speculation on whether he is using performance-enhancingdrugs; he did not test positive in Beijing.) "He just started liftingweights this winter," said Donovan Bailey, the Jamaican-born Canadian whowon the 100-meter gold medal in 1996 and has known Bolt since he was in hismid-teens. "He's really new at this. I think if he gets a tailwind, he cantake the 200-meter record down another tenth of a second. The 100?"—Baileyraised his hands defensively—"who knows? Nine-five? I mean, he's not likeanything we've ever seen, and he's still learning."
There would be anencore in Beijing, in the 4√ó100-meter relay. Last Friday on the morning of thefinal, Jamaica's Asafa Powell, the former world-record holder in the 100, whohas been thoroughly usurped by Bolt, called his brother, Nigel. "Payattention tonight," he told Nigel, who was in Beijing. "You're going tosee something special."
With Bolt runningthe third-leg curve and passing to Powell, who was long in the clear and freedof the demons that have visited him before in close championship races, Jamaicaran 37.10 seconds, obliterating the world record of 37.40 set by the UnitedStates at the '92 Olympics and tied a year later by the U.S. at the worldchampionships. "We talked about the record before the race," said Bolt,whose tally was unprecedented in Olympic track history: three gold medals,three world records, all by wide margins.
AS EASY AS Boltmade most of his sprints appear, every ounce of effort was visible in Clay'sdecathlon victory. The 2005 world champion prepared meticulously for Beijing.He passed on the housing in the Olympic Village and instead stayed with histhree coaches in an apartment 500 meters from the Bird's Nest to make comingand going easier. On the first day of competition he built an 88-point leadover Andrei Krauchanka of Belarus, despite the heat and humidity and a poorperformance in the high jump. That night, after a massage, an ice bath andtakeout Japanese food, Clay finally fell into an uneasy sleep at 2 a.m. and wasawakened at 5 to begin Day 2.
At the '05 worldchampionships Clay endured wild swings in temperature, windblown sheets of rainand even a lightning delay. At the time he called it the toughest competitionof his life. "This one was tougher," Clay, 28, said after he won thegold. "Something about the Olympic Games." Fourteen of the 40decathletes who started on Thursday morning had dropped out by Friday evening's1,500 meters, the 10th event. Clay had built a massive lead and staggered homelast but still won by 240 points. He dropped to the track on his back, hischest heaving.
That win, and theone by Merritt, who led a U.S. sweep in the 400 meters with the largest marginof victory ever in that distance at the Olympics (.99 of a second over 2004gold medalist Jeremy Wariner), gave a palpable sense of salvation to Team USA.The victories came after a 30-minute span early on Thursday evening in whichboth the men's and women's 4√ó100-meter relay teams dropped the baton on thefinal pass of the semifinals. It was the fifth time in the last 12 major globalchampionships that the men had failed to complete the race and the secondconsecutive drop in the Olympics for the women.
Yet it was hardlyan unsuccessful Games for the U.S., which finished with 23 medals, two fewerthan in Athens in 2004 but six more than in Sydney in '00, which included theloss of Marion Jones's five medals, which were stripped from her for usingperformance-enhancing drugs. Seven of the U.S.'s medals in Beijing were gold(one fewer than '00 and '04). But it was last Saturday—the final night oftrack—that Americans enjoyed their greatest redemption.
Shortly afterEthiopia's Kenenisa Bekele added the 5,000 meters to his 10,000 win, Felix andRichards won gold medals in the 4√ó400-meter relay, salving earlier frustration.Each had once hoped to double in the 200- and 400-meter races, but track'sinternational governing body would not change the race schedule—as it had oncedone for Johnson—to enable the attempt. It got worse. Richards struggled hometo a bronze in the 400, and Felix was beaten in the 200 by VeronicaCampbell-Brown of Jamaica, the same woman who beat her in 2004 and whom shedefeated for world titles in '05 and '07. (Campbell-Brown's victory completed aJamaican sweep of the short sprints for men and women.)
Neither Americanwoman held back her disappointment over the individual events. "I came hereto win a gold medal," said Richards.
Felix sobbed forfive minutes on the shoulder of her mother, Marlean, in the belly of thestadium. "She's been looking forward to this for four years," saidFelix's father, Paul. "And she had so much success along the way. It's verydisappointing."
The relay was not.On the second leg Felix ripped from third place to first, en route to a48.55-second split, the fastest of any runner in the event. Monique Hendersonwas passed on the third leg by Russia's Tatyana Firova, but Richards, in themidst of a 48.93 split (second-fastest in the relay) drove past Russian anchorAnastasiya Kapachinskaya in a brave last 30 meters. "With 120 to go, I knewI could get her," said Richards. She hit the line biting her lower lip inpain and pumped the baton with her right hand, emblematic of her effort andemotion. And with the abiding knowledge that 2012 is a lifetime away.