Usain Bolt Can Outrun Everything But a Cynical Public

By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, August 20, 2009

He doesn't even run through the tape at full speed. Usain Bolt is mugging for the camera, looking for friends. He's coasting or gliding or posing. Here's how the Associated Press reporter in Berlin described his performance in the 200 meters at the track and field world championships: "Usain Bolt cruised during the 200-meter semifinals on Wednesday."

It's unlike anything we've ever seen. Eyewitness reports from his semifinal heat in the 200 had him "closing it down just past the halfway mark and strolling past the line." The Guardian reported that Bolt used "minimal effort" and made an "energy-saving jog to the finish line."

His times in the 100 don't seem humanly attainable. The 9.58 he ran Sunday led NBC's Ato Boldon, the four-time Olympic sprint medalist, to say that Bolt has turned fantasy into reality, that he's causing us to rethink what is possible for the human body to achieve. "You have got to find someone from Saturn or Mars to beat this guy, someone from another planet," Boldon told the Chicago Tribune.

Bolt is making the feats of the greatest sprinters in history, from Jesse Owens to Carl Lewis, look pedestrian. No sprinter, since electronic timing was introduced in 1968, had shattered a world record in the 100 meters by .11 of a second. The most underappreciated performance in sports this year is Bolt's 9.58 on Sunday because it came at the same time many of us were obsessing over Tiger Woods vs. Y.E. Yang in the final pairing of the PGA Championship. Last summer, Bolts ran in the shadows of Michael Phelps at the Beijing Olympics.

Yet, nothing Phelps does and nothing Woods does can take your breath away the way Bolt can in these sprint events. It's the height (6 feet 5), it's the stride, it's the way he starts shoulder to shoulder back in the pack, then separates after 50 meters. It's the way he puts record-setting sprinters such as Tyson Gay in his rearview mirror as if they're a bunch of chumps. And it's the way he saunters through the tape, almost peacefully, teasing his competitors and those of us watching. Every race he leaves us wondering, "How fast could this guy go?"

Well, getting $100,000 every time you break the world record has given Bolt incentive not to shatter the record once and for all. He has every reason to break it today, break it Friday, break it in September and again in October if he wants to do it that way. It's almost incomprehensible that veteran sprinters, including Donovan Bailey, think that Bolt, who turns 23 on Friday, was technically inferior to every man in the competition in Beijing last summer. Asked in Berlin how low he can go, Bolt told reporters, "I think it will stop at 9.4, but you never know. . . . We'll just keep racing."

It's one of the phenomena that sets sport apart from anything else in the culture. Every time I watch Bolt, even though I've covered athletic competition for nearly 30 years, I'm flush with excitement. And every time that thrill is tempered with the thought that seems to accompany almost every superhuman effort in recent years: Is he clean?

Yes, it's a cynical question, but who doesn't wonder these days, especially as it pertains to track and field, where chemists and the dope police have been trying to outwit each other for decades? I was in Seoul during the 1988 Summer Games when we got the word, at about 4 a.m., that Ben Johnson had tested positive for steroids, wiping out that wondrous performance (9.79 when the world record was 9.93) he'd turned in against Carl Lewis a couple of days earlier. Sorry, but there simply is no more benefit of the doubt, especially not as it pertains to baseball before 2004 and track and field the past 25 years, at least.

Before the season, the St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols felt the public cynicism in such a way he went to the extraordinary length of saying, "Believe in me, I'm clean."

Bolt hasn't gone there yet, but he and seven other sprinters in the men's 100-meter final were announced to have passed doping tests. Track and field's world governing body said in a statement "All the tests results are negative." Good. That's what we all want to believe.

But Bolt's level of dominance, which once inspired only awe, these days raises wariness as well. The list of track and field stars tainted by performance-enhancing drugs is long and includes men and women whose athletic achievements we once held up as standards. Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Justin Gatlin, C.J. Hunter, Kelli White -- all of them went from fame to infamy after their drug use was uncovered, but none of them was close to as dominant in their events as Bolt is in his.

There's even the discussion now about Bolt playing professional football, presumably as a wide receiver. Bolt, a Jamaican, certainly is more aware of futbol than football. While there would be no shortage of teams who would bring him in for a workout, the likelihood of him becoming proficient at running pass routes seems remote. The thing about sprinting is after you've piled up all the medals and made a bunch of money, what's next? When you win by the margins Bolt does, perhaps boredom will set in and he will try football. Kurt Warner told me the other day that Bolt would surely outrun his deepest passes.

Bolt has come into our lives as no track and field athlete has since Lewis, really. He might very well be the most dominant athlete in the world, the most imposing and the most charismatic. The 200-meter final from Berlin could be must-see TV. I want to see Bolt, just once, bolt through the tape, full speed every step of the way. And I want to do it without having to worry about doping becoming part of the story . . . though each of those things might just be too much to ask.

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