LONDON — What amazes me most is often the simplest stuff. The most amazing thing I saw at the World Cup in South Africa, for instance, might have been the Dutch team warming up before the semifinal. Just the warmup. It remains one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen up close. At one point, four of them stood in a circle, and they kept the ball in the air for what had to be 10 minutes. After a while — maybe because they were bored — they started letting the ball go over their heads and kicking it from behind, like ballet dancers getting into the arabesque position. And still the ball did not hit the ground.
One of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen on a baseball diamond was Ozzie Smith taking infield practice. That’s all. Just infield practice. It was crazy brilliant, the way he threw perfectly to first base without even looking that way, the way he fielded balls between his legs, the way he had the coach hit high choppers and he would dive on them, as if he were jumping on a bomb, and throw the ball to first in a motion so quick that it took three or four looks before I even figured out how he was doing it.
Watching Larry Bird take shooting practice was like that. Not only did he make just about every shot, but each shot seemed to go in the basket in such a way that the ball would spin back to precisely where he wanted to shoot the next shot. It was like a dance with him and the ball and the rim.
It’s possible that the most striking thing I have ever seen at the Olympics happened four years ago in Beijing, when I watched Usain Bolt run (or jog) 100 meters in his qualifying race.
On Saturday, of course, I returned to see him again.
The 100-meter race was the first event of the first modern Olympics. That seems right. It still feels like sport distilled to its essence. You. Me. There. Race. That’s the whole thing. Oh you could argue for other Olympics events as the ancient core of the Games …
Shot put: Who can throw heavy rock farthest?
Javelin: Who can throw spear farthest?
Boxing: Who can punch other person into submission?
Water polo: Who can avoid drowning while opponents persistently kick you in groin and you try to throw inflated rubber ball into net?
But I would argue for the 100-meter dash. An American named Thomas Burke won the first. He was a 21-year-old law student who had not run the 100 often — he liked longer events. But, heck, he was there, and not many others were (only 14 countries entered, and only 15 people ran in the 100-meter dash). There were just five finalists, and Burke won in a time of 12 seconds. That’s it. Just “12 seconds.” They didn’t have particularly advanced stopwatches in 1896.*
*Had they had the Olympics four years earlier, the winner would have been timed by “one Mississippi, two Mississippi …”
That 12-second time was very slow, even for 1896. Several of the world’s best sprinters had already broken 11 seconds by then. The Olympic times lagged behind. Reggie Walker in 1908 ran it in 10.8 to win gold, the first to break 11 seconds in an Olympic final. That was the fastest winning time until 1924, when Harold Abrahams, of “Chariots of Fire” fame, ran a 10.6 to win gold. In 1932, Eddie Tolan won gold in 10.3 … the same time Jesse Owens ran when he won gold in Munich in 1936.
The point is that sprinters kept pushing each other to go faster, and they did. But those improvements were measured by tenths, and, when timing improved, hundredths of a second. The first accepted sub-10-second run was by Jim Hines in Mexico City. He ran a 9.95. It would be almost 15 years before Calvin Smith broke that record. He ran a 9.93, at the National Sports Festival in Colorado.
Carl Lewis ran a 9.92.
Leroy Burrell ran a 9.90.
Carl Lewis ran a 9.86.
Leroy Burrell ran a 9.85.
Donovan Bailey ran a 9.84.
Maurice Green ran a 9.79
Asafa Powell ran a 9.77, then a 9.74.*
*It should be noted that there were a couple of other world records — in particular, Ben Johnson’s 9.83 in 1987, his 9.79 at the Seoul Olympics and Tim Montgomery’s 9.78 in Paris in 2002 — that were later rescinded because the sprinters were disqualified for using banned drugs.
These drops are made up of unimaginably small bits of time. You know how fast one one-hundredth of a second is? Here’s an example that an engineer I know gave me: Find a friend. OK, you’ve got one. Now, go into a room and stand 11 feet apart. OK, got it? Now, one of you shout, “Yahtzee!”
The time between one person shouting Yahtzee and the other hearing it? That’s one one-hundredth of a second.
Or, here is another one. Blink. OK. Blink again. Imagine in your mind how long that took. Try it once more — blink. Got the time in your mind? One hundredth of a second is 35 times faster than that.
This infinitesimal amount of time is what has separated the greatest sprinters from the exalted ones, the fastest men of the day from the fastest men of all time.
It felt like a quantum leap when Maurice Greene knocked five hundredths of a second off the record. Greene is from Kansas City, and I was working in Kansas City at the time, so I spent quite a lot of time around him. At the Sydney Games, I worked it out with the NBC folks so I could watch the race again and again on one of their video machines, and in doing that I was able to write about his race, step by step.
It was doing that and talking at length with Greene and observing his astounding consistency — 53 times he ran a sub-10-second 100-meter dash — that led me to believe that he was the pinnacle of sprinting. I don’t mean that he’s the greatest of all time (despite his fashionable “GOAT” tattoo). I agree with Carl Lewis, who said that you judge sprinters in their time and place. No, I’m saying that I thought Greene was the model, the template of what a 100-meter sprinter could be, that sprinters would keep dropping the record a hundredth of a second a time, but nobody would reinvent sprinting.
Then he showed up, as if dropped from another planet.
At first, it was his name that interested us as much as his sudden place at the top of the sprinting world. Bolt. Could you imagine? A sprinter named Bolt. It was perfect. He was so new to the 100-meter sprinting game that nobody really knew quite what to make of him yet. His career had been spotty because of injuries and his sporadic work ethic, and anyway, he had been a 200-meter specialist. He pleaded with his coach to allow him to run the 100 in major competitions, but his coach kept refusing.
Then, in 2008, Usain Bolt was unleashed. In Jamaica, he ran a 9.76 — the second-fastest time in history. The sprinting world was shocked. Four weeks later, he shocked everyone even more, this time running a 9.72 and breaking Asafa Powell’s world record.
Nobody was quite sure where it had come from, where he had come from. He was taller than any sprinter had been, lanky, a totally different body type from the sports-car physique of Greene. It did not seem that he could unwind fast enough. It did not seem that he could explode like they could. Two and a half months later, when it was time for the Olympics in Beijing, nobody was quite sure what it all meant.
Then, it happened. I was at the Bird’s Nest when Bolt got in the blocks for his 100-meter qualifying. The idea in qualifying, of course, is to qualify. That’s all. The top three get into the semifinal, and that’s all the runners are trying to do. Yes, they might want to send a message to the other competitors, they might want to conserve energy, they might want to entertain the crowd. But these goals fall way below “qualify.”
Before Bolt stepped into the blocks, he seemed to have a whole different goal in mind. It seemed like he had come to blow our minds. He had acted like he was the mayor of the 100-meter sprint. He was pointing at people, laughing, playing up to the crowd.
Then he stepped in, and the gun sounded, and what followed is simply beyond description.
For about 50 meters, Bolt moved so fast, with so much power, that we just sat as jaws dropped. You heard the story that baseball umpire Ron Luciano said about standing behind a Nolan Ryan fastball? He said that every now and again the ball appeared to explode into a million little baseballs, and a doctor told him this was an optical illusion because the ball was coming so fast, the eye could not hold its focus. That story might be made up — Luciano had a gift for blarney — but that’s the closest thing I could come up with to describe Bolt that day. He was so fast compared to some of the fastest men in the world — at the halfway point he was five feet ahead of them, I’d guess — that it felt like an optical illusion.
He shut it down at that point. He absolutely shut it down, went into a lope, then a jog, then he hardly seemed to be moving at all when he crossed the tape. And we all looked up at the clock: 9.92. What? Impossible. How? He had run half a race, at most, and he ran a faster time than Linford Christie did to win gold in Barcelona.
One question followed the astonishment: How fast could this guy go if he actually tried?
In the semifinal, he did the same thing: He ran 50 or 60 meters like nothing anyone had ever seen and he shut it down again, jogging into the line. If anything this one was more incredible. This time he ran a 9.85, the same time Justin Gatlin had run to win gold just four years earlier in Athens — but the shock wasn’t the same as the first time.
Then in the final, he simply broke the reality machine. He won the gold medal in world record time of 9.69. But here was the thing: AGAIN he had not run hard to the finish line. He had pulled up and raised his arms before he even crossed the line. “I only race to win,” he said when everyone asked why he didn’t unleash everything and set a world record that would blow the mind. All around everyone was guessing how fast he COULD have a run had he tried. 9.55? 9.50?
When he was asked how much faster he could have run, he simply said: “Faster.”
Exactly one year later, he ran a 9.58 — the biggest drop in world-record time since the dawn of the electronic clock.
It’s Saturday, and I’ve returned to see the Bolt qualifying show again. It has been a weird four years for Bolt. He, of course, set that insane world-record time in 2009. But he got hurt in 2010. Tyson Gay beat him in Paris that year. Not long after, he false-started at the World Championships and was disqualified. And this year, he lost in the 100 to Yohan Blake at the Jamaican Olympic Trials.
So, once again … we do not know exactly what to expect. Is he still the best sprinter in the world? Is he even the best in his own country? Is he holding back? Is he going to unveil something the world has never seen?
The first qualifying race features Gay, who is the only runner other than Bolt to run a sub-9.7 100 meters. He breezes through qualifying with an easy-looking 10.08 — a solid enough performance, but nothing exciting. Gatlin, the 2004 gold-medalist who missed the 2008 Games because of a four-year doping ban, announces his presence by running a 9.97 in winning his qualifying race.
Then, another American, Ryan Bailey, tops that and runs a blistering-fast 9.88. Now we’re talking. Bailey remarks about how fast this track is. It’s a strange thing: Everybody’s talking about the speed of this track, like it’s an airport moving sidewalk or something. But that only makes Bolt’s run even more anticipated. What can he do on a fast track?
Then Bolt steps in. He looks much calmer and more serious than he did before his qualifying race in Beijing. He also looks much more familiar. The roar for him is enormous. Cameras click all over the stadium. He wears a green T-shirt, and on the back of it is a single word with a period at the end of it: “Respect.”
So much anticipation. What will we see? Will he show us what he has? Will he show us what can he do? He steps in. The gun goes off. And then, shockingly, Bolt appears to stumble out of the blocks. He breaks last. It’s a terrible start, and he needs to use some energy just to get back into the race. He does, of course, and by halfway through the race he’s in the pack, and then he moves slightly ahead. He looks both ways to be sure he’s leading. He is, but not by much, and he cannot downshift quite as much as usual. He finishes off the race. He wins the qualifying heat and looks at the clock: 10.09.
It’s important not to make too much of it. Heck, it’s just a qualifying race. But, still, it’s disappointing from a fan’s perspective. That was nothing like four years ago. Four years ago, he could have done 10.09 running backward. Four years ago, he could have run the race, gone to McDonald’s and finished half a Filet-O-Fish sandwich in 10.09.
Well, hey, it was an unusually bad start. And it’s just qualifying. And he could be playing possum. And it’s just qualifying — the semifinals and final aren’t till Sunday night.
There’s no question that Bolt is still the man to beat for the gold medal, still the one everyone is watching. But maybe he’s not the same unlimited runner he was four years ago, the one who could at any point step on the track and do something magical. Then again, maybe he is.
“We will see,” he says after his race. “We will see.”