'Thunder' Bolt

Apr 27, 2010 7:03 AM

World-class sprinter still dominant

The most amazing sports picture of last year, like its subject off by itself, was the incredible shot run the entire top half of the front sports page of the New York Times last Aug. 21.

It showed Usain Bolt, the brilliant Jamaican sprinter, beating the rest of the best in the world by more than five meters as he broke his own world record for 200 meters in the world championship track meet in Berlin, Germany.

Sprinters do not win 100 or 200 meter events by five meters. That simply isn’t done, except by Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world for those distances. Christopher Clarey’s well-written story of that race used words like "stunning" and "startlingly alone" to describe the finish of his world record mile in 19.19 seconds.

They were paled, however, by the picture, six columns wide and five inches deep, with Bolt, alone at the finish line, with four of the fastest men in the world spread across the track 15 feet behind him.

Sprinters do not win races by 15 feet in world class competition. At least earthbound sprinters don’t, and Bolt, an exhibitionist as well as a world champion, struck his signature archer’s pose, pointing to the heavens like a mythical celestial bowman, in another photo after his incredible runaway victory.

All of this came to mind last Saturday, when Bolt returned to action, this time in the University of Pennsylvania’s famed Franklin Field in Philadelphia. I ran there 70 years ago as a high school sprinter, and have never gotten over the thrill. The Penn Relays were a holy place to high school and college runners then, and still are today, their 116th year, and an all-time record crowd of 54,310 – part of 117, 346 who turned out during the Relays three days of competition – were on hand Saturday to see Usain Bolt run.

The same thing had happened in Berlin last summer, when almost 58,000, the largest crowd of the world championships, turned out at Olympic Stadium to see the thunder Bolt in action.

Most of them last Saturday, judging from their green and gold garb, the national colors of Jamaica, were there because they were Jamaicans or simply fans of Bolt – but it made for a huge colorful blanket of adoring support.

To track and field fans, the 4 x 100 meter relay is the highlight of relay events. Traditionally, the strongest runner anchors the team, and America’s fastest sprinters have for years used the event to showcase their brilliance, and the United States has dominated the event. It had won nine of the previous 10 races, in which four sprinters combine to form a tandem of speed. Jamaica, two years ago, had won the single Penn Relay 4 x 100 that the U.S. did not win during the decade.

That was before Usain Bolt took over stage center on the world track scene, and since then he has become a latter day Jesse Owens, a larger-than-life hero, literally and figuratively.

He is just under 6 feet 4, which makes him unusual to start with. It has been held, until Bolt, that runners that tall do not make top sprinters. Another myth shattered.

He is proud. Some call him boastful, but he simply knows he can run short distances faster than anyone in the world, and he is proud for himself and Jamaica. He could have had his pick of the top universities in America that specialize in developing track athletes, but he decided to stay in Jamaica and play video games and dance.

He is no simpleton. He likes the easy life, and he recently said he had no interest in running the 400 meters – which many think he could dominate as easily as he does the 100 and 200 – because he says it is far harder work training and suffering for than he is willing to undertake.

And he is unbeatable, or as close as humans come to that unattainable quality. Michael Johnson, the former world champion sprinter who should know, put it best. Speaking of Bolt, he said, "The man who will beat him hasn’t been born yet."