By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 21 -- The mouth of the World's Fastest Man, flying along at a sprinter's clip and threatening to careen out of its lane, suddenly screeched to a complete halt. In mid-sentence, Usain Bolt looked at the clock on the wall, which read 10 minutes past midnight Thursday, and stopped talking for an instant. "Oh, I'm 22 now," the Jamaican birthday boy noted, then went right back into his riff on his own greatness, which no one in the room, or the entire world, could dispute.
"I blew my mind," he said, "and I blew the world's mind."
His own blown mind should cause no worries -- it will be put back together with another night of prodigious sleep and perhaps some more Chicken McNuggets, his prerace meal of choice this week. But the world's mind may take some time to recover. Track and field, the Olympic Games and the sporting world at large witnessed something Wednesday that cannot quickly be processed, for it involved the utter rewriting of the laws of human athletic possibility.
On a hot, steamy night that would have felt familiar in Kingston or the sugar cane fields of his native Trelawny, Bolt obliterated another world record, torching a world class field in the 200-meter dash in a time of 19.30 seconds, .02 of a second better than American Michael Johnson's 1996 record, which once seemed as untouchable as any in the entire sport. He finished more than half a second -- an eternity in the realm of sprinting -- ahead of the field.
On top of his record-breaking run of 9.69 seconds in the 100-meter dash on Saturday, it gave Bolt an unprecedented double: No sprinter had set world records in both the 100 and 200 in the same Olympics. Carl Lewis of the United States, at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, was the last man who even managed to win both in the same Olympics.
"How fast can one human being go before there's no more going fast?" asked Kim Collins of St. Kitts and Nevis, who finished sixth in the race, expressing the stunned disbelief of those inside the sport at what they have seen from Bolt in the past week. "It's ridiculous. How fast can you go before the world records can't be broken?"
Unlike in Saturday's 100-meter final, when Bolt eased up with 20 meters to go, preening and prancing across the finish line, this time Bolt ran straight through it, never even looking around to check on his lead, which was enormous. Why the different approaches? Because he already owned the world record in the 100 before the Olympics, having run a 9.72 in May. But in the 200, his previous best still had been .35 of a second slower than Johnson's mark. "I saw I could get the record in the 200, so I told myself I wanted to leave everything on the track, and I did just that," Bolt said. "I told myself, 'If I'm going to get the world record, I must get it here.' "
On this night, Bolt was Secretariat, winning the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths. He was young Jack Nicklaus, playing a game with which, to paraphrase Bobby Jones, the rest of his competitors were not familiar. He was Cassius Clay, shocking the world by stunning the champ and then bragging to everyone about it.
"I was looking at myself and saying, 'That guy's fast,' " Bolt said after watching a replay of his race, "I was saying, 'I look cool.' "
Bolt, 6 feet 5 with a giant stride, represents a new prototype in sprints, replacing the old one of 5-9 cannonballs with low centers of gravity. Bolt turns his legs over just as quickly, but eats up more ground with each stride.
"The stride -- it's poetry in motion," said Renaldo Nehemiah, the former American hurdling champion. "He's not like a beast running. He's a gazelle. . . . And he recognized the responsibility of seizing the moment, and he did it."
If Bolt's performance has signaled new possibilities for sprinting these last few days -- he hopes to try for a third gold medal in the 4x100 relay on Friday -- his country's overall performance also has underscored a new balance of power in a sport long dominated by Americans. As recently as the 2004 Athens Olympics, the United States owned the sprints, sweeping the men's 200 and 400, taking gold and bronze in the men's 100, silver in the women's 100 and 200, and gold in both 4x400 relays.
But this year, Jamaica, a country with a population less than 1/100th that of the United States, already has seen Bolt win a stunning double and its women sweep the 100-meter dash. Just before Bolt's victory Wednesday, it sent two women, Veronica Campbell-Brown and Kerron Stewart, to the final of the 200-meter dash with the best qualifying times. Minutes after Bolt's run, Jamaica's Melaine Walker set an Olympic record in winning the women's 400-meter hurdles.
The Jamaicans will be overwhelming favorites in both the men's and women's 4x100 relays Saturday.
"We eat healthy. We have the natural talent. We train. And we have a tradition of being great athletes. It's a wonderful gift," said Olivia Grange, Jamaica's minister of information, culture, youth and sports. "We have the best coffee on the planet. We have Bob Marley. And now we have Usain Bolt. We are overjoyed and overwhelmed."
Others have speculated the Jamaicans' success could be because of more than healthy eating, cherished tradition and natural talent. The sport's recent history of drug cheats -- primarily Americans such as Marion Jones, Justin Gatlin, Tim Montgomery and Kelli White -- plus Jamaica's lack of a domestic anti-doping agency has prompted pointed questions about whether Bolt and his countrymen are clean.
Bolt has been drug-tested at least 11 times in 2008, according to Nick Davies, a spokesman for the world track and field federation. He also has been tested four times by the International Olympic Committee -- including three blood tests -- since he arrived in China, Davies said.
"Let me tell you something with regards to drugs," said Herb Elliott, the Jamaican team's chief doctor. "I am the person who tests in Jamaica. I have tested [Bolt] between November of last year and [now] 15 times. Since he has come [to Beijing], he has been tested six times for blood and urine. So anyone who wants to accuse this person or this program about drugs, I can say just one thing: We are ready at any time at any hour to be tested."
If Bolt is indeed clean, his showmanship and sheer talent could make him the savior of a sport that seemed threatened with irrelevance in the wake of previous doping scandals. It is a role, however, that appeared ill-suited for him until now.
In Kingston in late June, at the Jamaican national championships, he seemed withdrawn and edgy, running his races mostly joylessly and repeatedly telling disappointed fans and media members -- breathlessly awaiting a record-setting performance -- that he was there only to qualify for the Olympics. He spoke of the borderline suffocating attention that came with the title of World's Fastest Man, which he had earned in May, but already seemed to realize it was only going to get worse.
"After the Olympics," he said then, "I'm going to go home to Trelawny and just disappear."
He drove himself home after those races in a Honda Civic. But when he returns to Kingston, he will be greeted by a new BMW, a gift from his shoe company. In four days, everything has changed for Usain Bolt, for Jamaica and for track and field.
Staff writer Amy Shipley contributed to this report.