Running into history

Usain Bolt's performance was the greatest individual athletic feat of our time.

Published August 21, 2008 8:20PM (EDT)

What would it feel like to have been looking over Shakespeare's shoulder when he was writing King Lear's "We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage" speech? Or to be sitting next to Isaac Newton when the apple fell from the tree and the idea of universal gravitation came to him? Or to be looking at the notes appearing on the score as Gustav Mahler composed his Fifth Symphony?

Everyone who watched Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt at the Beijing Olympics has some idea. Because we all just watched history being made. Bolt simply turned in the greatest individual athletic performance of our time, and one of the greatest ever. And it still hasn't quite sunk in.

It's a strange feeling, watching history happen before your eyes. You know that you just saw something you will never forget, that will enter the pantheon of peak human achievements. You know it even as it happens, but it's too big to take in, because your brain isn't calibrated to register the truly extraordinary. You're going about your business, living your normal life, and suddenly something you've never seen before appears, and the horizon of human possibility moves back.

It may seem absurd to compare Bolt's feat to Shakespeare's or Newton's. But if you believe that humanity's physical achievements are a part of our cosmic résumé, as I do, then the comparison is justified.

The Olympics are the greatest sporting event in the world, and the sprints are the heart and soul of the games. There's a primeval reason for this, one that goes back to the very origin of our species. There was a time when the fastest runner was the top of the human food chain. And somewhere in our genetic makeup, our atavistic, instinctive, animal brain, we still feel this. That's why the 100- and 200- and 400-meter races are the glamour events of the games. There's a reason that Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson are Olympic legends. The fastest man in the world rules.

And Bolt has now done something even these great athletes never did. He won gold in both the 100 and the 200 -- and he set world records in both. The 6'5" Jamaican now towers over every human being who has ever run.

"I just blew my mind and the world's mind," Bolt said after he pulled off his double. He's right, and the only question is which victory sent more voltage through the planet's collective cerebellum. His 9.69 100 was staggering because he stopped trying 20 meters from the end, raising the question of just how much time he gave away. It's quite plausible that he could have run a 9.55, a time that pre-Bolt track experts would have said could only have been performed by the Flash or someone of Martian ancestry. And Bolt's 200 win was just as incredible. Not only did he simply destroy the strong field -- silver medalist Shawn Crawford (who moved up after another runner was disqualified) finished a ludicrous .66 seconds behind him -- but he broke one of the most amazing and hallowed world records in all of sports, Michael Johnson's 19.32.

There are a few world records that even nontrack freaks remember. Bob Beamon's 29-foot-2.5-inch jump. Jim Ryun's 3:51.1 mile. Bob Hayes' 9.1 100-yard dash. These records have all since been broken, but they're a permanent part of track lore. Michael Johnson's 19.32, set in 1996 at Atlanta, was in that group. It was a third of a second faster than the next 250 fastest times. Most experts did not expect it to be broken in our lifetime. But then Bolt struck. His 19.30 left the great Johnson, who witnessed Bolt's run, awestruck -- and probably worrying about his 400-meter world record of 43.18. For if Bolt decides to start running the longer distance, there's every reason to believe he would be even better at it: He has the physique of a natural quarter-miler. He wins the shorter distances only because he is a force of nature, a once-in-a-century talent. And he just turned 22.

With the dual performances of Michael Phelps in water and Bolt on land, the Beijing Games have become a classic, worthy of comparison with the greatest Olympics. And inevitably, the water-cooler conversation of the day is whose feat is greater, Phelps' or Bolt's?

It's apples and oranges, of course. Phelps did something no Olympian has ever done by winning eight golds, set world record after world record, never lost a race, and is unquestionably the greatest swimmer of all time. And yet, I think Bolt's feat is even more extraordinary.

There are two reasons for this. First, world records in swimming at these games are cheap. Because of the high-tech pools, the Space Age swimsuits and, of course, the greatness of the athletes, world records fell almost every time the swimmers jumped into the water. By contrast, world records are much harder to come by on land. And second, Bolt dominated his competitors even more than Phelps did. He was never even remotely challenged. It was the equivalent of Phelps' beating everybody by four body lengths every time.

There's a third reason I find Bolt's achievement even more impressive than Phelps' amazing deeds, but it isn't intellectually defensible. I just care more about running than I do about swimming. It feels more important to me. If we were amphibians, I might feel differently. But maybe for the above-mentioned atavistic, running-down-prey-on-the-savanna reasons, the ability to swim fast just doesn't move me in the same way that the ability to run fast does. Part of this, I admit, is because I myself cannot outswim a boulder. But it's also harder to relate to swimming because you can't really see what they're doing. I'm sure Phelps has the most gorgeous stroke in the world, but it's hard to see it, and even when you get the underwater camera view, you have to be an expert to appreciate it. Whereas Bolt's magnificent stride is out there for all to see.

I know, these aren't really good arguments. Phelps will go down in history as one of the greatest Olympians and athletes ever, and deservedly so. But Bolt will just go down in history.

What do you feel when you've just seen a human being do something better than it has ever been done before? Perhaps a poet should have the last word.

This is from John Keats' great sonnet "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer" -- which opens, appropriately, with the line "Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold":

"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken;/ Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes/ He star'd at the Pacific -- and all his men/ Look'd at each other with a wild surmise --/ Silent, upon a peak in Darien."

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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