Unless you are an athletics aficionado who can rattle off the venues of the last six World Championships without looking it up, chances are that you, along with millions across the world, first saw Usain St Leo Bolt on August 16, 2008 at the Beijing Olympics in the men’s 100m final. Chances also are that you were instantly thrilled with what you saw, having caught a glimpse of someone whose effortlessness puts the natural in preternatural. And as the World Championships in London – Bolt’s last meet before he hangs up his spikes – approaches, you are gearing up for one last salvo from arguably the greatest athletic specimen, this, or any era has seen.
That August night in Beijing, Bolt shattered the world record, broke the 9.7 second barrier, and clocked the fastest time seen at the Olympics since Ben Johnson’s infamously drug tainted mark of 9.79 at Seoul two decades ago. But those are the technical details.
Imagine if you had never seen a 100m race before, and there were no graphics telling you a world record had just been broken. Even then, there was something primal and captivating in watching an almost two meter tall human being, with strides that seemed to treat Earth’s gravity like it was Mars’, bursting through the pack of runners around him, and in a magnificent moment that probably lasted all of four seconds, win the race with plenty of space between him and the silver medallist. He had enough of a margin to be able to thump his chest as he coasted the last five meters.
Man of Speed
The 100m race at the Olympics is usually considered the ultimate showcase of human athletic ability – the whole spectacle is distilled and concentrated over the most breath-taking few seconds on a sporting field. But that night in Beijing, a 21-year-old lanky lad from Jamaica had managed to push his limits and with it our imaginations about what is humanly possible. Or had we just glimpsed Superman?
Usain Bolt is a transcendental athlete, his appeal, as the documentary I Am Bolt points out, is universal cutting across borders, religion, gender and sporting disciplines. His Superman-like ability is not just in being able to sprint insanely fast, but also in his knack for radiating joy and hope as he does so. Just like how in the comics or the Christopher Reeve movies, the Man of Steel was a beacon of hope and brightness, Bolt [Man of Speed?], if you go by the reactions he inspires among fans after he wins his races, is much the same. It has something to do with how easy, and at the same time how wondrous he makes sprinting look.
A 6’5’’ athlete should not be sprinting, the orthodoxy would tell you. They can be slow at the start and over distances that are run in the blink of an eye that can be the margin between victory and defeat. At Seoul when Ben Johnson, amped up on drugs as it would turn out, ran a then world record time, the commentators kept gushing about how he got the best start of his career in that race. In fact, Johnson’s pre Olympics reputation and favourite tag had been built on his ability to start phenomenally quickly.
So, what is a good start in a 100m race? It is the ability to react the fastest to the starting gun. Move too quickly and you might be disqualified for a false start, move too slow and you’re whatever the professional athletics equivalent of a rotten egg is. Bolt has always had one of the slowest reaction times at the start, but every single time, he has more than made up for that with his monstrous strides around midway through the race. His repeat of the Olympics gold at London 2012 [where the four fastest men on the planet at that point were in the final] followed the same pattern, as did his sensational “threepeat” at Rio 2016, where, coming in short of his best form, he still managed to outperform other athletes at their peak.
This tendency of his – the sluggish start followed by a spectacular succession of leaps – makes him uniquely captivating to watch. It gives the impression that somehow he is doing it all effortlessly [not true, obviously] and the aesthetic, like watching someone dance, makes you want to groove to the same beat, regardless of your athletic ability or lack thereof.
Amazingly, his unorthodox technique may owe itself to a Dhoni-esque twist to his early sporting career, when a tall Jamaican youngster who wanted to be a fast bowler was instead drafted into the track and field team by his coaches who spotted sprinting potential. Thus, instead of Michael Holding 2.0, we got Bolt 1.0. Although, given his tendency to sneak up on you from behind and then decimate you on the track, his competitors are likely to be okay with giving him Holding’s nickname – Whispering Death. As a teen, he excelled at the 200m, which was his primary event, but surely the legend of Bolt is headlined by his exploits in the 100m, a more glamorous race because of its traditional standing of being the test to find “the fastest man on the planet”.
As we get ready to watch him burst on to our screens one last time at London, watch Bolt’s 2008 100m final and for the sake of contrast, any other pre-2008 100m Olympics final. Chances are that despite knowing what you do, or even if you were a Carl Lewis or Michael Johnson fan like yours truly, Bolt’s strides will still jump at you, his quantum leaps holding you in such thrall that you cannot help but feel transported to another dimension.