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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Greatest of all time?

Usain Bolt spotted the TV cameraman, darted over and raised his index finger for millions of viewers to see. “I am No. 1,” he mouthed. “I am No. 1.” His boast qualifies as an understatement.

Last night, when Bolt cemented his status as the world’s No. 1 sprinter, he also emerged as track’s Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan. Anyone who disputes that the Jamaican star belongs in that transcendent class better brush up on track history and prepare to lose the argument.

In the space of four days, Bolt became the first man to break the world record in the 100m and 200m sprints in the same Olympics since the Games resumed in 1896. It’s worth noting who doubted it would happen, too. Michael Johnson, who set the world record in the 200 when he ran it in 19.32 seconds at the 1996 Olympics, spoke to reporters before the finals Wednesday and explained why he thought Bolt was not yet ready to break his record. “To run a 19.3, he’s going to have to run the curve a lot better, he’s going to have to hold that speed for a very, very long time,” Johnson said. “That’s not the most easy thing to do, even for him.”

Chances are, Johnson was spot-on with his assessment – even though Bolt went out hours later and broke Johnson’s record when he covered 200 meters in 19.30 seconds. Bolt can improve his speed on the curve, which will only fuel his astonishing progression.

Already, Bolt has broken three world records in less than three months. In May, he lowered the 100 record to 9.72 seconds from 9.74 seconds – less than six months after he started running the event as a professional. He then broke that record in Sunday’s final, winning in 9.69 seconds despite coasting for the final 20 meters. Up against the world’s top sprinters, Bolt looked like he was competing against schoolchildren. “It was the most impressive athletic performance I’ve ever seen in my life,” Johnson said.

During the 200 final, there was no early celebration. This was Bolt at top speed from start to finish. This was Bolt competing less against the seven helpless other sprinters entered in the race than against Johnson’s 12-year-old record. With no one within five meters of Bolt down the stretch, there he was, arms still pumping, legs still driving, straining to sustain his speed. He leaned as he reached the finish line, glanced at the clock on his left and thrust his arms in the air.

The record was Bolt’s, one day before his 22nd birthday. With that, he became the first man to simultaneously hold the world records in the 100 and 200 since Don Quarrie held both in 1979, and he became the first man to win the gold in the 100 and 200 at the same Olympics since Carl Lewis in 1984. “Michael Johnson is a great athlete and he revolutionized the sport,” Bolt said after the 200 final. “I just changed it a little bit.”

Despite all of his showboating, Bolt’s assessment fails to capture what he has done – and can do – for sprinting.

At 6-foot-5, Bolt has defied conventional wisdom that he was too tall for the 100. He has learned to burst out of the starting blocks as fast as the smaller and more compact sprinters, and his long stride gives him a sizable advantage. He needs only 40 to 41 strides to cover 100 meters whereas most 100-meter sprinters need 46 to 47 strides. Bolt’s turnover – the speed with which his feet hit the ground – is as fast as smaller sprinters, meaning he’s virtually impossible to catch. “He’s been able to take the long stride he has and been able to coordinate that and achieve a very long stride,” Johnson said before the 200 final. “That combination is deadly, as the people in (the 100 final) found out.”

Is Usain Bolt the best sprinter ever? As the Games approach a close, let the debate begin. But one thing is beyond debate: You can feel comfortable mentioning his name in the same breath as Gretzky, Jordan and Woods.

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