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FROM HIGH in the stadium, Michael Johnson set his record free. Twelve years earlier at the Atlanta Games he had run the 200 meters in 19.32 seconds to win the gold medal. Wise people predicted that Johnson would take that world record into very old age, the king of his own hill, regally surveying the young sprinters who year after year would win races and medals but fall short of this one enduring standard.
But last Wednesday night along came Usain Bolt of Jamaica, on the eve of his 22nd birthday. He squeezed his 6'5" body into the starting blocks in lane 5 for the final of the 200 meters at Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium. Four days earlier Bolt had won a gold medal in the 100 and, more remarkably, had broken his own world record with a time of 9.69 seconds, even while loosing an exuberant celebration at least 15 meters from the finish line. Now the Nest buzzed with anticipation.
At the gun Bolt moved instantly, swallowing up the stagger on Brian Dzingal of Zimbabwe, one lane to his outside. Johnson, who was working as an analyst for the British Broadcasting Company, watched as his event was transformed. "When I saw his start, and then three or four strides out, " Johnson said, "I knew with the way he was running the record was gone." Bolt thrashed his arms through the curve, snatching another stagger from Wallace Spearmon of the U.S. He straightened for the final 100 meters and began gritting his teeth, driving into the night air.
Track and field events at the Olympic Games take place over nine days every four years, during which athletes will be great—or they will be something else. They will be remembered or forgotten based on their performances. Weakness will be discovered and exposed, and on rare and special occasions redemption will be offered. It is a tiny quadrennial window during which the athletes can transcend their narrow place in the sports culture.
LaShawn Merritt did it. A willowy, 22-year-old U.S. 400-meter runner who has been chasing his potential since leaving East Carolina after one semester in 2004, Merritt ran a personal best of 43.75 seconds to win a gold medal. Bryan Clay of the U.S. did it too. Sleep-deprived on the second day of the decathlon after a restless night before, Clay endured to win the storied event by the largest margin since 1972. Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards made their marks after falling short of expected gold medals in their individual events (Felix in the 200 meters, Richards in the 400) when they shared a stirring U.S. victory over Russia in the 4×400-meter relay on the last night of the meet. "It doesn't make up for anything else," said Felix. "But it was the right way to finish."
They all labored in Bolt's long shadow, though. He had come to the meet as a prodigy, but a curiosity as well, and his 100-meter performance, while breathtaking, engendered criticism. "Good TV, bad sportsmanship," said four-time Olympic medalist and NBC analyst Ato Boldon. "A little bit too much of 'You can't run with me.'"
Frankie Fredericks of Namibia, another retired four-time Olympic sprint medalist and chairman of the International Olympic Committee's athletes' commission, said, "Most of us, as track fans, would have liked to have seen what he would have run if he had run through the finish. I did stupid things when I was young too. You think it will always be easy and you'll never have injuries and you'll always be strong and healthy. But this is not the way it works. You have to take chances when you have them."
Even IOC president Jacques Rogge of Belgium, who had chosen not to criticize China for revoking the visa of Olympic gold medalist and Darfur activist Joey Cheek, was not so reticent about Bolt. "He should show more respect for his competitors," said Rogge.
Bolt answered in his most eloquent manner—on the track. Hours before the 200 final he told his agent, Ricky Simms, "Tonight I'm going to race the whole thing."
Johnson was dead right about Bolt's scorching start and the curve portion of the race. Unofficial splits had Bolt running 9.95 seconds for the first 100 meters. (Johnson ran the curve in 10.12 during his record performance.) In the straightaway Bolt extended his lead with every stride through the finish, even dipping his torso as if he needed to beat some unseen opponent. The clock first froze at 19.31 seconds and then adjusted to 19.30. Bolt fell to his back in celebration, and the stadium quivered with noise.