Sunday, August 17, 2008

Bolt From the Blue

It has been buried by the Micheal Phelps juggernaut, but the unfortunate time lag between Beijing and the US, and by dumb programming decisions by NBC, but for all of Phelps' dominance, the single most awesome moment athletically in this Olympics has been Jamaican Usain Bolt's stunning, otherworldly victory in the 100 meter dash. Bolt crushed his own world record, lowering it from 9.72 seconds to 9.69. But more impressive than that is how Bolt did it -- and how he emerged this year.

Bolt, a precocious talent in the 200 pretty much had to beg his coach to be allowed to run the 100. This year is his first year as a competitive 100 meter runner at the world class level, which is to say that Bolt has probably not run the 100 in ten meets. He is 6' 5", which is massive for the dash, and event traditionally dominated by muscular, stocky guys built like NFL running backs. In the race Bolt got out to what was for him a decent start. At his height, and with his inexperience, the blocks are the most precarious moment of the race for Bolt. But by 30 meters he race was over. By 60 the race was a laugher. And by 80 meters Bolt, in the Olympic Finals, was celebrating, posing, igh stepping, and decelerating. And yet he still ran the premier distance in track and field, indeed the gold standard for speed in any sporting context, faster than anyone else had ever run it. Not so long ago I remember the world record in the 100 being Jim Hines' 9.95, a mark that stood from 1968 to 1963 and I remember when that mark stood at 9.93 for some time, from 1983, when Calvin Smith set the mark until Carl Lewis (my vote getter for greatest Olympian ever, by the way) set the clean record (following the ignominy of Ben Johnson) of 9.92. (Here is the progression of the record.) Today we take a sub-10 second hundred for granted, forgetting how ridiculously fast such a race is.

We have entered a new realm in the 100, and perhaps in the 200 if that really is Bolt's better event. Bolt ran a 9.5-something race the other day but the joyousness of winning Olympic gold took over. Michael Phelps' eight golds is awesome, and his world records are undeniable. But the worth of swimming world records seems to have undergone a devaluation in recent months. But Usain Bolt's world record is the single greatest one-event performance in this Olympics, and while not Bob Beamonesque, represents one of the greatest single accomplishments in the history of the Olympics.

No comments: