An Ode to the Fastest Man Alive

Usain Bolt is the fastest man in history by a wide margin. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, he became the first man to run under 9.7 seconds in the 100-meter sprint, and he also set world records in the 200-meter and the 4×100-meter relay with his Jamaican teammates. Three races, three Gold Medals, three Olympic Records, and three World Records.

Hailing from a country that boasts two other athletes with World Championship Golds on their résumés—both still in their prime, one of whom is a former world record-holder—Bolt is the undisputable point man. The third-fastest man ever, Asafa Powell, hands Bolt the baton for the anchor leg for Jamaica’s dominant sprint squadron. When he does, he does it with gratitude. Bolt so dominates the other athletes that the idea of him losing a race with any sort of lead is patently absurd. He would have to trip and fall, and even then a betting man might still put him close to even money.

Bolt is 6’5” tall and has been since age 15. At age 16, in front of a home crowd in Kingston, he became the youngest person to ever win a Junior World Championship Gold in the sprints. It was a world junior record, as well. Before the race, Bolt was so nervous he tied his shoes on the wrong feet. A half-foot taller than any other competitor, he made the rest of the junior boys’ field look just like what they were: boys daring to compete with the talent of the century. When he finished, Bolt faced the ecstatic stands full of his compatriots, smiled and then saluted.

“He has now gone into the realm of video game times.”

These were the only words the telecaster could find after Bolt broke his first record in Beijing. His run was a masterpiece. With his lanky stature, Bolt was slow off the line, as always. He did not gain the lead until after halfway in Beijing. Five strides later, the race was over, and the theatrics began. Coasting through for the victory, he spread his arms wide and looked up, entirely breaking form. He finished by slamming his fists against his chest several times and high-stepping across the line. But no one cared. This was simply Shaq hanging on the rim.

“Who says lightning doesn’t strike twice?”

After it was unveiled that Bolt had to beg his coach to let him run the 100 meters at the Olympics—he had been running the distance for less than one year—everyone’s eyes were glued one the gangly, green-and-yellow-clad champion at the start of the 200m. The result was eerily similar.

“This is maybe the most impressive track performance ever.” 

The announcers were as flabbergasted and ecstatic as the capacity crowd that exploded into thousands of camera and phone flashes. Not only did Bolt break Michael Johnson’s world record, but he did it into a headwind. The only exuberance he allowed himself this time were some fist bumps and his patent lightning bolt stance at the finish line. The photo of his compatriot Mullings’ silver finish is dominated by Bolt standing center stage, one arm cocked back and the other pointing out into the crowd.

By the time the relay had been run, Bolt’s place in the pantheon of sport greats was firmly secured. The Jamaican victory was called “devastating,” by commentators.  The camera angle was forced to widen down the homestretch so the silver and bronze teams could be seen fighting it out. Jamaica had already begun to celebrate. “The 1992 record has been obliterated… It was thought to be one of the strongest records in T&F.” After Bolt, Powell and company were done; he was half a second stronger.

The Olympics were really only the beginning of the Bolt story. At the World Championship of Track and Field, held in Berlin in 2009, Bolt delivered two more world records.

Tyson Gay of the United States had equaled Bolt’s record over 100 meters at a meet in China two months earlier. Many wondered if he had a shot to leapfrog Bolt. 

In Germany, not only did Bolt win again, but he had time to glance at the clock and prepare for his celebration.

“He’s looking around, wondering, where is Tyson?” said one announcer, during the replay. His partner corrected him: “No, didn’t you see?  He looked right at the clock. He wanted to make sure it was a World Record.”

Tyson Gay does run one of the fastest times in history, as does Powell for third place, but again, they are pained and straining while Bolt is jogging his victory lap.

“Maybe we should call him Insane Bolt,” the NBC announcer said after Bolt’s 200 meter world-record performance in Berlin. “He can’t keep breaking world records, can he?” Bolt had just lowered his own time from 19.30 to 19.19 seconds. Two days later, at the closing ceremonies, the mayor of Berlin gave him a piece of the Berlin Wall.

To put these records in perspective, think of your high school P.E. mile. The fastest kid might have run six and a half minutes, beating the other students by half a lap.  Bolt is doing something akin to that margin of victory, but he is doing it against the collective accomplishments of every sprinter in history. 

“We may never see an athlete like Usain Bolt again. He is producing sporting moments that people will tell their grandkids about,” said the announcer. Insane is probably not the right adjective, though. 

“Doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting different results” is Einstein’s popular definition of insanity. But at this point, the only insane thing would be to think that Bolt will not keep breaking records. Especially if he, just once, keeps his head down and runs through the finish tape without celebrating first.

In terms of video game times, Bolt is not quite there yet. Hyper Olympic is the oldest Track and Field video game, released in 1994. Several players have broken eight seconds in the 100-meter event, but that was only after modifying their controllers and using cheat codes. Bolt’s new world record stands at 9.58 seconds.

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