Bolt soars among Olympic legends

2008-08-22 00:00

Usain Bolt has bestowed upon Beijing the greatness sought by every Olympics. Despite the brilliance of Michael Phelps and the other exceptional performers in a wide range of activities, these Games belong to the lengthy Jamaican. Time seemed to stop as he streamed down the home straight in the 200 m sprint final. Even the second- and third-fastest men on earth could not get close to him. It was an extraordinary sight, one that belonged as much to the veld as the athletics track.

Every Olympics yearns for the emergence of a champion among champions, a performer capable of making old men gasp and youngsters gape. Even now I can remember the stunned silence that followed Bob Beaman’s jump in Mexico in 1968. He seemed to land in another parish. When the distance came up on the scoreboard, Beaman thought they must be talking about the discus or shot putt. He did not so much break the world record as demolish it. He almost jumped out of the sandpit. Heck, he nearly jumped out of the stadium. No one had thought it possible to jump 29 feet (8,8 metres). But then, the four-minute mile and the 10-second hundred metres were once considered out of range.

Beaman’s record remained intact for 23 years and it took a combination of modern equipment and two supreme athletes trying to outdo each other to break it. In a single leap, he joined the immortals, put himself alongside Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, Ed Moses, Michael Johnson, Kip Keino, Haile Gebreselassie and a handful of other long distance runners.

Now, Bolt has joined this group. Although he held the 100 m record, few realised the extent of his capabilities. The first hint came in the heats of the 100 m. Despite resembling a giraffe, Bolt lost nothing in the blocks and took the lead halfway. And then he coasted. Not that he exactly waved to friends in the stands or took down any phone numbers, but he was not going full pelt either. It was only a heat. Accordingly, a time of about 10,10 seconds was anticipated. And then the result flashed on the screen — 9,92. He had cantered to the line and still broken 10 seconds. What could he do flat out?

Even the final did not provide the answer. Realising that he had the race in the bag with 30 yards left, Bolt eased back, the better to relish the moment. He looked up at the screen to check on the progress of his rivals. Don’t ask how he had time for that. Great sportsmen always have time. His aim was to win gold. Is it not enough for a 22-year-old from a small island in the Caribbean?

And still he broke the record! Fast men were left floundering in his wake. And it was also so beautifully done. While muscular rivals hammered away at the track like piledrivers on concrete, he glided along like a puck across ice. It was the sort of combination of grace, stealth and pace that excites admirers of motor cars and deer.

Not until the final of the 200 m did he unleash his full powers. Before the race he larked around in his usual way, but looked tighter. Sweat dropped from his brow. Was he worried or focused? By now he must have known that he was the fastest man in the field. Evidently he had other matters on his mind, including Michael Johnson’s record of 19,32 seconds set in 1996. Regarded as pre-eminent among sprinters, Johnson had a fast-stepping style reminiscent of Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. His 200 m record was regarded as the hardest of them all to break.

Bolt rose with the gun and streamed around the bend, emerging with a lead of several yards. The crowd roared and opponents strained. They ate up the yards, he devoured them. In a trice, the race was over and it only remained to follow the winner. Did anyone see the rest? It is hardly fair, but that is sport. This time Bolt did not ease up till the line had been crossed. Even then he did not celebrate straight away. Instead he looked at his time on the screen. Already gold medals were not enough.

In those two races, Bolt proved himself to be the greatest sprinter ever to put on spikes. But it goes further. His trim body discounted any suggestion of steroids. His style was stunning. His celebrations were entertaining. Moreover, he is an athlete in a Games overtaken by unsuitable sports, like soccer and tennis, and unbalanced by others such as rowing, sailing and cycling with more variations than Elgar, and therefore a disproportionate number of medals.

Bolt rose above all that and thereby confirmed that, though sport can stoop, it can also soar.

•Peter Roebuck is an international sports correspondent who is based in the KZN midlands.

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