His performancesare unthinkable, but also seemingly self-evident. Usain Bolt is a sprinter,after all; his work is timed to the thousandth of a second. Within five dayslast week at the world track and field championships in Berlin—a deeplysignificant site in the sport's history—Bolt crushed his own year-old worldrecords while winning both the 100 and 200 meters. The numbers speak in track'smost eloquent tongue.
This is an article from the Aug. 31, 2009 issue
Yet there is alsoa more complex story. Bolt has shaken the historical moorings of his sport,dragging it to a distant, unimaginable place. Past sprint records arediminished, future marks seemingly unreachable for others. A decade's worth ofchampionship gold medals appear inaccessible to anyone but Bolt—provided hestays healthy and motivated. He carries the sport on his shoulders. And ofcourse, a giant if hangs in the air, as it does with nearly every transcendentathlete of the last two decades: if he is clean.
Begin with thetangible. On the night of Sunday, Aug. 16, Bolt won the 100 in 9.58 seconds,finishing the job that he started at the Beijing Olympics when he ran aworld-record 9.69 despite breaking form at least 15 meters from the finish,spreading his arms like a pterodactyl and beating his chest exuberantly. TysonGay of the U.S. finished second to Bolt in Berlin in 9.71 seconds, an Americanrecord that would have been a world mark before the Beijing Games but nowstands as simply the fastest nonwinning time in history.
Four days laterBolt won the 200 meters in 19.19 seconds, also .11 faster than his Beijingworld-record time, but far more stunning because in China he had ripped all theway through the 200 finish and taken down Michael Johnson's 19.32 from the 1996Olympics, a mark thought by many track experts to be unassailable. As Bolt dugthrough the final meters in Berlin, baring his teeth with the effort, his6'5" frame gobbling huge chunks of the blue track, U.S. TV viewers watchingon Versus heard analyst Ato Boldon, a four-time Olympic sprint medalist, screaminto his microphone, "Oh ... my ... God!" A universal reaction.
Behind Bolt, fourother runners broke 20 seconds, but the closest, Alonso Edward of Panama, wasmore than seven meters and .62 of a second back, as if running the next heat.As in Beijing, Bolt broke the record despite a slight headwind, suggesting thathe can go faster if he ever gets a wind at his back in a big 200.
There would be anencore for Bolt on Saturday, when he ran the third leg on Jamaica's gold medal4 √ó 100 relay team, although that group did not break the world record it setat the 2008 Olympics. Speaking about his entire performance, Bolt told SI,"I'm still fast, but I wasn't in condition to run the rounds. After the200, I was winded. After the [4 √ó 100] I was really tired." (The Jamaicanrelay foursome also did not have to contend with the U.S. team, whichcreatively continued its history of relay incompetence, earning adisqualification in the first round for passing the baton too early.)
The entire meetwas contested in Bolt's lengthening shadow. Either his 100 or 200 alone wouldstand among a handful of the greatest single performances in track and fieldhistory, a list topped by Bob Beamon's still incomprehensible record-settinglong jump at the 1968 Olympics. In the same stadium where Jesse Owens won fourgold medals in front of Hitler in 1936, white German youths painted Bolt's nameon their chests and carried Jamaican flags. In the U.S., where track and fieldhas long been relegated to niche status, Bolt featured prominently not only onSportsCenter, but also on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He has crossed intomainstream sport and popular culture like no track athlete since Carl Lewis,and with far more panache. Whether by his signature Lightning Bolt pose or hispostrace celebrations or his generally behaving as if the world track stage isjust another Kingston dance club, Bolt injects joy into the proceedings. In hisown country, crime nearly ceases when he runs.
Bolt, who hadnever competed in a professional 100-meter race until 2007 (he had beenprimarily a 200-meter runner), has now taken down the world record by .16 of asecond in less than 15 months. The previous .16-second reduction—from U.S.sprinter Leroy Burrell's 9.90 in New York City in 1991 to the 9.74 of Jamaica'sAsafa Powell in Rieti, Italy, in 2007, took more than 16 years. Bolt's has beena stunningly swift drop.
The 200 recordhas evolved differently. Italian sprinter Pietro Mennea's 19.72 (run in thespeed-aiding thin air of Mexico City) was set in 1979 and for years consideredeasily breakable. Yet it stood until Johnson ran 19.66 at the U.S. OlympicTrials in '96 and then crushed it six weeks later at the Games. Track-savvyfans in the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing audibly gasped when Bolt ran 19.30to win the gold. It was thought by many experts that while Bolt might furtherlower the 100 record, his 200 would stand for years. Instead it stood for onlyone.
There arepractical explanations for Bolt's destruction of the record book. Sprint speedis a relatively simple function of two qualities: stride length and stridefrequency. Bolt's stride length is a function of his height. He took 41 stridesin the Berlin 100; the 5'11" Gay took 44. But any tall man would take fewerstrides; Bolt takes them nearly as quickly as a smaller man, a combination ofskills that borders on unfair. Imagine if Yao Ming had Chris Paul's quickness.That is Bolt.
And while Bolt'srise in the last 15 months has been meteoric, he also showed great talent as ayoung runner. Bolt was a world junior champion before turning 16, and he ran19.93 when he was a high school senior. Of course—and this is where thediscussion becomes unpleasant—the same defense was often made in support ofMarion Jones. She had qualified for the U.S. Olympic team and competed againstworld-class athletes as a high school junior, which Jones's supporters used asevidence that she was not taking performance-enhancing substances at the peakof her career when, in fact, she was.
Bolt and hiscoach, the cantankerous Glen Mills, also a Jamaican, have insisted for a yearthat only since Bolt began training seriously in the winter of 2007--08 has heapproached his potential. In the spring of 2008 Bolt sat in a Kingston hotellobby and said, "I liked cricket better. Now I see what I can do if Itrain."
But Bolt's risecomes at a time when any athletic performance that extends the old boundariesof a sport will be viewed with a certain skepticism. Is Bolt just another TimMontgomery or Justin Gatlin (U.S. sprinters banned for takingperformance-enhancing drugs)? Is he Mark McGwire or Albert Pujols? (Is AlbertPujols Mark McGwire?) Bolt did not test positive for any banned substances inBerlin and has not tested positive at any other point in his nascent career,but there is little cause for blind faith in the drug-testing system, whichcompletely missed Jones, to name just one.
It is a confusingtime, and if Bolt is clean, it's his misfortune to have come along now. If itis discovered that he is not clean, the blowback would probably be fatal fortrack and field; Bolt's races were the only ones that sold out in Berlin. He isthe only breakout star in the game.
If you are a fan,you embrace what you see—and it is truly breathtaking to behold. Or you wonderif it is real. For now, there is no right answer.
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More photos from the world track and field championships at SI.com/bonus