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Usain Bolt: Running away with it

Poll of the Decade: In a decade of magical sporting feats one man stood out from the rest. The winner of <i>The Independent's </i>'Moment of Genius' is Usain Bolt, who raced to glory and into the record books

It was, strictly speaking, more than a moment. Less than half a minute in all, but still more than a moment. It was genius. There can be no doubt about that.

On a Sunday evening in August in Berlin's Olympic Stadium, a venue resonant with sporting history, a tall, leggy young man from the village of Trelawny on Jamaica's north coast brought the nearest you will ever hear to a collective gasp from 76,000 spectators. He ran the 100 metres in 9.58 seconds, the fastest time the world has ever seen.

On the Thursday that followed he ran the 200m in 19.19 seconds, the fastest time the world has ever seen. On the Friday, Usain Bolt celebrated his 23rd birthday as the first ever double world and Olympic champion, and quite possibly the fastest man the world will ever see. "He is a gift to this earth," judged Shawn Crawford, the US sprinter.

That Bolt could run fast, very fast, was no secret as the 12th world championships began in the German capital this summer. His breathtaking – he seems to specialise in breathtaking – performances a year earlier in Beijing had earned global acclaim and confirmed what those in the know back home in the Caribbean had suspected since his early teenage years.

As a gangly 14-year-old he won the Caribbean schools championship, leaving older boys gasping in his wake. Don Quarry, the 1976 Olympics 100m gold medallist, was one of those watching. From that moment he had no doubt what path Bolt was destined to follow.

In Beijing, Bolt shaved the world record in both the sprints, breaking his own mark in the 100m by 0.03sec and Michael Johnson's in the 200m by 0.02sec. Bettering Johnson's time was a landmark moment – not least for the television shots of Johnson's astonishment as he watched from the BBC studio.

But Berlin was something else, and that is why he, through those two races, is the choice for the Moment of Genius in The Independent Poll of the Decade. Roger Federer provided a moment of improvised genius; Jonny Wilkinson one of cool precision to conquer the rugby world; but Bolt transcended his sport.

In broader terms his achievements may not be as defining as those of Jesse Owens in the same stadium three-quarters of a century earlier, but if it can ever be about sport, just sport, then these two races were enough to garland any decade. "It is not enough to say, 'he's the best', or 'he's so much better than anyone else'," said Johnson in the aftermath of Bolt's unique double double. "It's just not enough. It's not appropriate."

It took Bolt 41 strides to cover the 100m. While the other men in a quality field – Tyson Gay became the second- fastest man ever – were sprinting, arms and legs pumping with every ounce of effort, Bolt, in the yellow singlet and green shorts of Jamaica, his bright orange shoes sparkling down the track, looked as if he was just running; all fluid grace, doing what he had been born to do.

When he crossed the line, he appeared to have hardly made an effort and carried on at speed round the bend, whether through adrenalin or simply the utter joy that he brings to an event that has been so tarnished in recent decades. It was some way down the back straight before the photographers caught up with him. He accepted a Jamaican flag from the crowd and wrapped it around his shoulders, his face wreathed in smiles.

When questioned later about the doubts that will, in today's times, always accompany the world's fastest man, he was happy to answer directly. "I don't get offended," he said, "because I know year after year people have run fast and then they have tested positive." But Bolt's effect on his sport has only been positive. Athletics is fortunate to have him.

He had taken 0.11sec off his 100m record; a staggering figure. But his 200m was in many ways even more startling. A car crash earlier in the year – he somehow injured only his feet having been driving barefoot – had interrupted his training, and, while gold was a sure thing, even he had ummed and ahhed over the possibility of another world record. He lowered it by 0.11sec again, for good measure winning by a record margin. "Now I am tired," he said.

It is two and a half years until he will defend his Olympic crown in London, and in a discipline that is measured in hundredths of seconds that can seem a lifetime away. Expect Bolt to be there. He runs on because, he says, he wants to be a legend. But here's the thing: he already is.

The runner-up: Jonny conquers the world

It is an iconic sequence of images in English sport, culminating with the ball rising into the Sydney sky, the white-shirted supporters behind the posts already rising to acclaim the moment Jonny Wilkinson won the World Cup for England.

It was a Saturday night Down Under in 2003, the hosts and defending champions Australia against an England side meticulously marshalled by Clive Woodward; a tense, tight encounter, never more than a score between the sides.

With eight minutes remaining, Wilkinson dropped for goal to give England a six-point lead and missed. In the final minute, Elton Flatley levelled the scores and it was into extra time.

There were 26 seconds left on the clock when another rumbling forward effort from the men in white came to a halt in the ideal position. Matt Dawson's quick hands delivered the ball to his No 10 and Wilkinson, with one sweet connection, changed his life for ever.

"Thirty seconds to go," said captain Martin Johnson afterwards, "Wilko in front of the sticks to win the World Cup, you wouldn't want anyone else there, would you?"

Hot dog to stellar horse: How you ranked the other nominees

Following Bolt and Wilkinson in the poll comes Roger Federer, crowned Hero of the Decade in yesterday's Independent, in third with his astonishing "hot dog" shot to win a vital rally against Novak Djokovic in this year's US Open. With his back to the net and at the baseline, Federer hit a peach of a shot between his legs to put him just one point away from advancing to the final.

David Beckham's 93rd-minute free-kick against Greece which sealed England's participation in the 2002 World Cup comes fourth in the vote.

An equally sublime goal, Zinedine Zidane's magnificent volley in the 2002 European Cup final, was fifth, while Tiger Woods' unbelievable chip at the 2005 Masters and the "once in a lifetime" colt Sea the Stars' final stride to win the 2009 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe share sixth. Gary Pratt completes the field with his remarkable run-out of Ricky Ponting during the 2005 Ashes.