His performances are unthinkable, but also seemingly self-evident. Usain Bolt is a sprinter, after all; his work is timed to the thousandth of a second. Within five days last week at the world track and field championships in Berlin—a deeply significant site in the sport's history—Bolt crushed his own year-old world records while winning both the 100 and 200 meters. The numbers speak in track's most eloquent tongue.
Yet there is also a more complex story. Bolt has shaken the historical moorings of his sport, dragging it to a distant, unimaginable place. Past sprint records are diminished, future marks seemingly unreachable for others. A decade's worth of championship gold medals appear inaccessible to anyone but Bolt—provided he stays healthy and motivated. He carries the sport on his shoulders. And of course, a giant if hangs in the air, as it does with nearly every transcendent athlete of the last two decades: if he is clean.
Begin with the tangible. On the night of Sunday, Aug. 16, Bolt won the 100 in 9.58 seconds, finishing the job that he started at the Beijing Olympics when he ran a world-record 9.69 despite breaking form at least 15 meters from the finish, spreading his arms like a pterodactyl and beating his chest exuberantly. Tyson Gay of the U.S. finished second to Bolt in Berlin in 9.71 seconds, an American record that would have been a world mark before the Beijing Games but now stands as simply the fastest nonwinning time in history.
Four days later Bolt won the 200 meters in 19.19 seconds, also .11 faster than his Beijing world-record time, but far more stunning because in China he had ripped all the way through the 200 finish and taken down Michael Johnson's 19.32 from the 1996 Olympics, a mark thought by many track experts to be unassailable. As Bolt dug through the final meters in Berlin, baring his teeth with the effort, his 6'5" frame gobbling huge chunks of the blue track, U.S. TV viewers watching on Versus heard analyst Ato Boldon, a four-time Olympic sprint medalist, scream into his microphone, "Oh ... my ... God!" A universal reaction.
Behind Bolt, four other runners broke 20 seconds, but the closest, Alonso Edward of Panama, was more than seven meters and .62 of a second back, as if running the next heat. As in Beijing, Bolt broke the record despite a slight headwind, suggesting that he can go faster if he ever gets a wind at his back in a big 200.
There would be an encore for Bolt on Saturday, when he ran the third leg on Jamaica's gold medal 4 × 100 relay team, although that group did not break the world record it set at the 2008 Olympics. Speaking about his entire performance, Bolt told SI, "I'm still fast, but I wasn't in condition to run the rounds. After the 200, I was winded. After the [4 × 100] I was really tired." (The Jamaican relay foursome also did not have to contend with the U.S. team, which creatively continued its history of relay incompetence, earning a disqualification in the first round for passing the baton too early.)
The entire meet was contested in Bolt's lengthening shadow. Either his 100 or 200 alone would stand among a handful of the greatest single performances in track and field history, a list topped by Bob Beamon's still incomprehensible record-setting long jump at the 1968 Olympics. In the same stadium where Jesse Owens won four gold medals in front of Hitler in 1936, white German youths painted Bolt's name on their chests and carried Jamaican flags. In the U.S., where track and field has long been relegated to niche status, Bolt featured prominently not only on SportsCenter, but also on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He has crossed into mainstream sport and popular culture like no track athlete since Carl Lewis, and with far more panache. Whether by his signature Lightning Bolt pose or his postrace celebrations or his generally behaving as if the world track stage is just another Kingston dance club, Bolt injects joy into the proceedings. In his own country, crime nearly ceases when he runs.
Bolt, who had never competed in a professional 100-meter race until 2007 (he had been primarily a 200-meter runner), has now taken down the world record by .16 of a second in less than 15 months. The previous .16-second reduction—from U.S. sprinter Leroy Burrell's 9.90 in New York City in 1991 to the 9.74 of Jamaica's Asafa Powell in Rieti, Italy, in 2007, took more than 16 years. Bolt's has been a stunningly swift drop.
The 200 record has evolved differently. Italian sprinter Pietro Mennea's 19.72 (run in the speed-aiding thin air of Mexico City) was set in 1979 and for years considered easily breakable. Yet it stood until Johnson ran 19.66 at the U.S. Olympic Trials in '96 and then crushed it six weeks later at the Games. Track-savvy fans in the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing audibly gasped when Bolt ran 19.30 to win the gold. It was thought by many experts that while Bolt might further lower the 100 record, his 200 would stand for years. Instead it stood for only one.
There are practical explanations for Bolt's destruction of the record book. Sprint speed is a relatively simple function of two qualities: stride length and stride frequency. Bolt's stride length is a function of his height. He took 41 strides in the Berlin 100; the 5'11" Gay took 44. But any tall man would take fewer strides; Bolt takes them nearly as quickly as a smaller man, a combination of skills that borders on unfair. Imagine if Yao Ming had Chris Paul's quickness. That is Bolt.