Moments that made 2008: Usain Bolt

Usain Bolt sprints into history with an astonishing world-record run in the 100m, 16 August, The Olympic Stadium, Beijing

By James Lawton
Tuesday 30 December 2008 01:00

There will always be moments in sport which last for ever, imperishable announcements to store away for times when you just might wonder about the point of the games men play and the races they run.

There is the turn of the hooves of a great horse, that sudden surge of power that tells you the contest is over.

There is the movement beyond charting of a George Best, the courage and sublime judgement of Muhammad Ali and the sheer surreal improbability of a certain shot conceived and executed by Tiger Woods.

It is not often, however, that a man seizes a few seconds and fills them with an equal measure of glory and doubt that might just follow his every subsequent footstep.

This is what Usain Bolt did in the "Bird's Nest" stadium in Beijing back in August.

Not all of what he did was unique because if his extraordinary, long and loping gait was a new way of annexing the Olympic 100 metres, which for all the betrayals of the last few decades remains arguably the most compelling explosion in all of sport, it carried an impact that was uncannily similar to another one that had come 20 years earlier in Seoul. Did we say uncanny? It was all of that but also mesmerising and incredibly intense.

Bolt, like Ben Johnson in 1988, smashed the world record, and it was here that the comparison was most irresistibly magnetic. In Beijing, 91,000 heads swivelled instantly from the track along which Bolt had mocked the challenge of his seven rivals, to the huge results screen flashing the astonishing news that – despite his celebrations before the line was crossed – the Jamaican had brought his own world record down to 9.69 seconds.

But because of Johnson and the stripping of his gold after he ran a time of 9.79sec that in 1988 had been just as breathtaking as Bolt's, those who had been in Seoul inevitably felt all the years peeling away.

Again we owned those swivelling heads in search of confirmation that indeed this was a moment of sports history. It was confirmation, though, as fragile in Beijing as it had been in Seoul in the hours waiting for Johnson, his eyes tinged with yellow and his skin disturbingly rough, to make the urine for the test that would effectively destroy his life – and so much of our trust in everything that happened in his wake.

Ostensibly at least, there was more reason to believe in Bolt. He didn't look like a druggie athlete. His musculature was not immense. He made the explosive force of so many sprinters redundant. He loped, in amazing, ground-devouring strides beyond such raw power and you could understand, and laugh with, not against, the Jamaican coaches who had been convinced that such a running action could be ultimately effective only at distances from 400m upwards. It was calculated that on average Bolt required four strides fewer than an opponent to complete 100m.

Yet it was a still a leap of faith to believe in an achievement that now, four months on, still produces a rush of blood, and who can doubt it will create the same excitement when it is recalled not in another four months but 40 years?

The day after his triumph, Usain Bolt sat eating chicken McNuggets and laughing at the stir he had caused. He said that running was only part of the enjoyment of his life. He wasn't going to spoil any of it by taking drugs. He wasn't going to tarnish that moment made of gold or the miracle of trust it still represents.

He wasn't going to make the world forget those few seconds when its heart stood still. All the world could do, of course, was murmur a fervent and somewhat hopeful Amen.

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