With his fun-loving attitude, Bolt is the kind of athlete everyone can enjoy
Heading into the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, I wanted American Tyson Gay to dominate in track & field to remind them that America is still the world super power of sprinting. Injuries had derailed that, and I was afraid that Jamaicans Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell would steal the spotlight: I didn't want Jamaica to suddenly be the center of the sprinting world.
That all changed when I saw Bolt run.
His strides were effortless. He glided across the track like a jet coming in for a smooth landing. As he neared the finish line of the 100m, his lead was so big that he celebrated his victory for the last 10 yards.
After the race he was criticized by a lot of people for what they called "showboating." But that's when I fell in love with Bolt. What we saw wasn't showboating but rather the unbridled expression of joy that this 21-year-old simply couldn't keep bottled up inside him. After his victories in the 200m and 4X100, we again got to watch this fun-loving Jamaican dance, celebrate and goof off. It didn't feel staged and it didn't feel like it was "all about him." It felt real and raw: The kind of emotion so many of us wish we saw more of from public figures. I loved it.
This past weekend at the World Championships Bolt finished what he started at the Olympics. This time, there was no pulling up, no showboating: And he shaved 0.11 seconds off his own world record posting a shocking time of 9.58 in the 100m.
Before the race, before taking the starting blocks, Bolt was in rare form. While sprinters routinely put on their masculine-macho face, flexing and strutting and trying to psyche out the other runners, Bolt was smiling. He was laughing. When the camera panned to him, he waved to his mom. While the other runners looked miserable, he looked like he was having fun. His attitude has even affected Powell, who now joins Bolt in some smiling and joking just before the race.
It's refreshing to see someone seemingly enjoying the whole process of his sport. It's why so many people fell in love with guys like Brett Favre and Doug Flutie: Athletes who laughed and smiled and had a ball doing what they love. And if Bolt keeps winning with the times he's putting up, maybe more sprinters will consider smiling instead of scowling before their races.
How drastically is Bolt changing the face of sprinting? A time of 9.58 was thought impossible just 10 years ago. And for those who saw the time as a possibility, it would have been literally decades away.
Consider this. In 1991, Carl Lewis posted his final World Record time of 9.86. Over the next 16 years, four different men chipped away at the record by an average of less than 0.01 seconds per year. Then, in less than 15 months, Usain Bolt alone lowered the world record three times by an average of over 0.01 seconds per MONTH. From the advent of electronic timing in 1977, the biggest single drop in the world record was .07 seconds; Bolt dropped .11 seconds from an even lower record.
Now people are starting to whisper about 9.4. Just the imagining of that time is magical: It means Bolt is capturing the imaginations of fans, experts and people who couldn't care less about track & field. More than just watching him perform, they're fantasizing about his next performance. For a non-American athlete in a sport that rarely makes it on TV, that's pretty incredible.
Of course, none of this includes his world record in the 200m (19.30), besting Michael Johnson's world record that was supposed to stand for decades. Equally impressive is his joint world record (37.10) in the 4X100m: A record that had stood for 15 years and that his relay team shattered by the biggest margin (.30) in over 40 years.
Bolt isn't done. Not by a long shot. Carl Lewis set the world record in 1991 at the age of 30. Donovan Bailey set the mark five years later at the age of 28. Bolt turns 23 this week. And no sprinter in history has had the natural ability that his 6-foot-5 frame gives him.
There's been lots of debate over the last couple years about whether Tiger Woods or Roger Federer is the greatest athlete of our time. Arguments can be made for both. Michael Phelps certainly gets some consideration after his monumental achievement in the pool. All three men have set all-time records in their respective sport that will likely not be broken in decades. They play individual sports, so their great accomplishments point to their incredible domination of their sport.
But the greatest athlete of our time may be Usain Bolt. Federer will suffer his losses to Nadal. Woods will go some years without a Major victory. Phelps will win or lose depending, in part, on the swimsuit he wears. But no one can beat Bolt. No one. He is in a class by himself in a way that no other athlete of today can compare.