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Faster Than Fast
Tim Layden
August 25, 2008
Usain Bolt won the 100 meters in world-record time with such ease that you have to wonder: How much lower than 9.69 can he go?
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August 25, 2008

Faster Than Fast

Usain Bolt won the 100 meters in world-record time with such ease that you have to wonder: How much lower than 9.69 can he go?

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A GOLF CART raced through wide, clean tunnels under the Bird's Nest, Beijing's Olympic Stadium. Volunteers jumped aside, lest they be flattened. Banners flapped in the little vehicle's slipstream, and passengers gripped tiny handrails. Usain Bolt slid right and left on the cushion of the passenger seat, the fastest man alive going even faster. He wore Jamaica's colors—green, yellow and black—on a T-shirt, and from his neck hung the Olympic 100-meter gold medal. "We should race a 100 in the cart," said Bolt's agent, Ricky Simms, and Bolt laughed in a youthful baritone from deep in his chest.

"That would be fast, man," he said. "Very fast." They whipped around a corner, buzzed up a concrete ramp and into the warm China night, bound for a car that would drive Bolt back to the Olympic Village.

Fast has new meaning now. Bolt did not just win the gold medal last Saturday night, he ran away from the field in 9.69 seconds and broke his 11-week-old world record by .03 of a second, despite letting up and celebrating the final 10 long strides, making a joke of the concepts of competition and record-keeping. Not 400 meters across a concrete courtyard from where Michael Phelps had redefined greatness in water, Bolt did likewise on dry earth. "They are both freaks of nature; there is no other way to put it," said Donovan Bailey, the Jamaican-born Canadian who won the 100 meters at the 1996 Olympics and whose Olympic-record time of 9.84 Bolt obliterated. "Usain is amazing, absolutely amazing."

Now Bolt, just 21 years old and 6'5", stepped from his undersized chariot in a parking lot lit by tall, ornate streetlamps. Volunteer workers in logo shirts stared and whispered. "This is why you run," Bolt said. "Definitely, man. All the time I've been running, I dreamed about getting on the biggest stage and being a champion someday. Here it is. Big feat, man, big feat."

He is young and at the same time old at the game. A Jamaican schoolboy legend (no small title on a sprint-centric island) in his early teens and a world junior champion in the 200 meters at 15, Bolt did not attempt the 100 on a world-class level until last summer and broke the world record in only his fourth final. The Olympics were just his eighth final, and he is speeding the evolution of his event just as Bob Beamon advanced his (the long jump in 1968) and Michael Johnson his (the 200 in '96). "We're looking at the future," said four-time Olympic medalist and NBC sprint analyst Ato Boldon. "This kid is something like we've never seen before."

The 100 meters was not nearly the conclusion of Bolt's Olympic work. He was scheduled to run the 200-meter final on Wednesday night, and Johnson's 12-year-old world record of 19.32 seconds, once thought untouchable, was expected to receive its first serious assault. "If he gets someone to push him through the corner [turn], we could see something unbelievable," said Bailey. "I'm thinking between 19.22 and 19.26."

Bolt is also expected to anchor Jamaica's 4×100-meter relay on Friday night. He laughed when he looked ahead, pulling on the brim of a Jamaican team baseball cap. "I feel very good, man," he said. "Yeah, yeah. I feel strong."

On a breezy evening some 24 hours later, a trio of Jamaican women added a punctuation mark to Bolt's feat when Shelly-Ann Fraser won the women's 100-meter gold medal and Sherone Simpson and Kerron Stewart finished in a dead heat for silver, the first women's 100-meter medal sweep in Olympic history. Despite having three sprinters in the field, the U.S. was denied a spot on the podium for the first time since 1976 (although 2000 became a shutout when Marion Jones was later stripped of her gold medals for admitted steroid use).

"The Jamaicans showed up, and we totally didn't," said Lauryn Williams, the defending silver medalist who placed fourth. "It's very humbling."

Fraser ran a ripping 10.78 with calm winds, the fastest final time in Olympic history. (Florence Griffith Joyner ran a wind-aided 10.54 in 1988 and Jones a vacated 10.75 in 2000.) While many Jamaican sprinters have attended college and run track in the U.S., Fraser, like Bolt, instead stayed home to train with the growing MVP Track Club in Kingston. She came to prominence while running barefoot in the Jamaican primary schools' (12-and-under) championship, and her Olympic time was a personal best by .07. "It was the performance of a lifetime," Fraser squealed afterward. "I can't stop smiling; my braces are hurting me."

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