James Lawton: Time stands still as Lightning Bolt strikes for a second time
Thursday 21 August 2008
You could say, once again, that it was a night when the world stood still – all of it, that is, except for Usain Bolt.
Also, it was when the last doubt was removed that whenever anyone thinks of Beijing and the year 2008 it will not be the man who has been proclaimed the greatest Olympian of all time, American swimmer Michael Phelps, who comes to mind.
It will be Bolt. He has made the 29th Olympics his own in less than the time it takes you sit comfortably in your chair and open your morning newspaper.
In two races, covering 300 metres in somewhat less than 30 seconds, he has made a name to rank with the greatest figures in the history of sport, all sport, and his own must now hope that his reputation survives the next few months and years without stain.
He has recreated the compulsion that is created when men run faster than any have done before – and he has given some reason to believe he may be doing it in a way that does not inevitably involve, somewhere along the road, a sickening fall from grace.
The most suspicious minded will point out that some of Bolt's Jamaican's female team-mates are also threatening to complete an annexation of their own versions of the sprints, and with performance improvements and world records that are reminding some of the widely doubted, and largely unheralded brilliance of the late Florence Griffith Joyner in Seoul in 1988 – the year of Ben Johnson.
Bolt is his own man. It is the prettiest of thoughts. When he runs it is more like a powerful gust of wind than any manufactured explosion of staccato power.
For the second time in five days he was astonishing in the certainty created that he was about to run beyond previously known limits. On this occasion, however, we had a better sense that he was indeed striving to occupy new ground in human performance.
Beating the 12-year-old 200 metres world record of Michael Johnson, achieved in the Olympics of Atlanta, Bolt acknowledged with every stride – and a final stoop at the line – that he required every morsel of his most extraordinary talent and physiology.
Last Saturday the 6ft 5in Jamaican was merely trimming his own world 100 metres mark.
Last night he was shaving the standard of one of the greatest Olympians of all-time, Johnson, the man in the golden shoes, and drawing alongside arguably the most versatile track and field performer of them all, Carl Lewis.
Bolt knocked two-hundredths of a second off Johnson's mark of 19.32sec but if that is an extremely small fraction of time, it was still another massive stride for a sport which, before the explosion of Bolt here over the last few days, was looking tired in its appeal and irredeemably tainted in its culture of win at all costs.
Believing in Bolt as redeemer is still not a formality without risk after 20 years of institutionalised duplicity, but there has never been a greater incentive since the fall of another Johnson.
Bolt runs at blinding speed and, if he truly is what the world of athletics so desperately wants him to be, which is to say a paragon of cleanliness and phenomenon of unprecedented talent, he also seems to bring a surge of pleasure to all who see him.
When he picked up the Jamaican flag, after announcing to the world again that he was number one, the 91,000 audience in the Bird's Nest stadium was easily prompted to sing "Happy Birthday" to celebrate his 22 years.
Bolt briefly orchestrated the singing, did his version of Michael Jackson's moonwalk, and generally clowned his way out of the great stadium he has come to own in the last few days. But if Bolt plays the clown, he also runs like a god, a freakishly assembled one perhaps, but still a god. Back in Atlanta you thought Johnson had brought a unique approach to the business of running faster than anyone had ever done before. With his upright style and his churning power he made a mockery of attempts to match his withering stride.
Lewis, the last man to complete the Olympic sprint double, in Los Angeles in 1984, was a different but still staggering force as he worked his way so elegantly to nine gold medals in the sprints and the long jump in four Olympics stretching from Los Angeles to Atlanta.
Lewis, Michael Johnson, these are the men who have defined track and field, and in Johnson's case without even hint of a blemish, Lewis having been pardoned by the US track and field authorities when he was found to have shown traces of stimulants – a fleeting and unplanned lapse worthy of exoneration, we are told. However, the point is that both Lewis and Johnson added hugely to the allure of track and field; they remade an aura and an excitement that had begun to dwindle critically before these last few days.
The overwhelming impression last night, as it was on Saturday when he brought down his 100 metres record from 9.72 to 9.69, was that Bolt was operating on his own terms, but this time the enduring brilliance of Johnson had given him much less room to manoeuvre.
Still, the run was utterly riveting for the stunned audience of the stadium and the world – and quite disembowelling for those who were required to run in his slipstream.
Running in lane five, between America's Shawn Crawford, the Olympic champion of 2000, and Zimbabwe's Brian Dzingai, Bolt brought any mystery about the race to an end on the stagger of the bend.
The only remaining question concerned his ability to pick off the record of the great and unsullied Johnson.
That he knew it was something that was going to take him close to his limits was evident enough in his last strides to the line. On Saturday he flaunted his triumph. Here, he pushed himself right to the moment it was over.
It was only then when the world allowed itself to shift in its seat. Be sure it will be transfixed for some time, and, after so long, maybe with an old willingness to believe what it sees.
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