LONDON – The fastest race in the history of man sounds like a riot. There is nothing quite like this in sports. More anticipation than the Super Bowl, more people watching in person and on TV than any prizefight.
The air is thick in the seconds before the world’s fastest men do their thing in the 100 meters Olympics finals on Sunday. All still, except the camera flashes. All quiet, except for thousands of people softly going, shhh…
Then comes the riot.
The starter’s gun.
Eighty-thousand people screaming.
In the time it takes to dial a long distance phone number, the Olympics’ marquee event is over and a stadium full of people from all over the world are saying “Wow!” and “Did you see that?!?” in dozens of languages and at some point the realization hits that there has never been a faster race, ever. The man who won made history.
“This is what’s going to make me a legend,” says Jamaican superstar Usain Bolt.
He won in 9.63 seconds, finally running hard for all 100 meters. He broke his own Olympic record, and joined Carl Lewis as the only men to win consecutive golds in the 100 meters since the Olympics went to once-every-four-years in 1908. But that only tells a slice of the story.
Before Sunday, the second-fastest time in Olympic history was 9.82 seconds. American Tyson Gay finished in 9.80 seconds _ and didn’t medal. He was near inconsolable after the race, in tears, crying after missing a medal by one hundredth of a second _ it is impossible to even blink that fast.
Yohan Blake’s silver medal time of 9.75 seconds would’ve been the world record five years ago. Justin Gatlin took bronze in 9.79 seconds _ equal to the world record Maurice Greene held for six years until 2005. No group has ever run this fast, not even close. Former world record holder Asafa Powell pulled up lame with an apparent injury and finished in 11.99 seconds – the first 100 meters was won in 12 seconds.
It was a wild scene, made even wilder by what was apparently a beer bottle thrown onto the track by a man moments before the race. A Dutch judo medalist Tweeted that she punched him. Try to make this up.
They said this was the best field of finalists ever assembled, and it lived up to the hype, even as so many folks back home cussed at their computers when NBC’s live stream buffered out the race.
This is sports’ most universal event, the rawest and simplest of athletic competitions. What else could provide nothing more than years of anticipation, 10 seconds of action, a 10-minute victory lap – and leave no one disappointed? Where else can the world’s very best line up with such a simple objective – you, me and 100 meters – that we all understand?
If it’s true that elite athletes are reaching their maximum physiological capacity, it is also true that we’ve never seen this many people able to run nearly this fast. This is a little bit of human evolution, a lot of fortunate coincidence of so many talented sprinters living their peaks simultaneously, and a tiny part what is apparently and exceptionally fast track here in London.
“Just being part of history means a lot to me,” Gatlin says. “…at the end of the day, the best man won and that was Bolt.”
Television does not do justice to Bolt’s superhuman gifts. Words probably can’t, either. He calls himself “the most naturally gifted athlete the world has ever seen” on his Twitter page, and that sounds about right. His previous Olympic record came after he coasted the last 30 minutes or so, even pounding his chest before the finish line.
Watching him run feels like watching a man brought from the future, or some sort of alien. The others run. He floats. It looks like he’s running on one of those people-movers at the airport, or like he’s being pushed forward by gust of wind only blowing in his lane.
Nothing else in sports is like this. Ten seconds of action, four years of anticipation. Rinse, repeat. Bolt says he will run again at the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, when he’ll be 29. That, he says, will be the final thing that will make him a legend.
The next will be winning the 200 meters – his favorite race – in a three-day event that begins on Tuesday.
“That’s it for me,” he says. “If I become a legend, that’s my goal right here. Then I gotta make a new one.”