Lots of things have happened in this sporting summer. Roger Federer won Wimbledon, which thrilled me. The Yankees pulled away in the American League East. Also good.
But I think the greatest phenomenon of the last few months is a 23-year-old Jamaican guy who right now is miles beyond everyone else in his sport.
We’ve become so immune to numbers in athletics. Some guy hits 65 home runs, and we yawn. A running back rushes for 200 yards and four touchdowns. Meh. A basketball player scores 50 points in a game? Pretty good, but … next.
What Usain Bolt is doing right now at the World Championships of track and field in Berlin is a rare and beautiful thing. Every generation, we get an athlete who takes his sport to the next level. Babe Ruth did it in the 1920s.
Muhammad Ali had the 1960s and ’70s. Jack Nicklaus was right there with him in his sport. Some kid from North Carolina named Michael Jordan brought his game into another stratosphere in the 1980s and ’90s, while Michael Phelps brought those in the water up on his shoulders into a glorious place.
What Bolt is doing, in smashing his own world records in the 100 and 200 meter dashes, is something remarkable. He’s destroying the idea that track records are broken in increments, hundredths of a second at a time.
He beat his own 100-meter record by .11, then broke his 200-meter by the same mark. Do you know how ridiculous that is? It’s like a halfback running for 350 yards in a game, or a baseball player hitting 81 home runs in a season.
It’s laughable, how much of a mockery Bolt is making the competition. Poor Tyson Gay ran the 100 this week faster than any American ever had, posting a 9.71. And he wasn’t even close to winning, as Bolt’s 9.58 blew him away.
His margin of victory – 0.62sec – in the 200 is greater than the sum total of winning margins of the five previous winners of the world 200 title.
As many have said this week, Bolt is simply redefining what the human body can do. Consider:
— His 19.19 in the 200, when broken down by 100-meter increments, were a 9.58 and a 9.61. So he equaled his own world record, and then missed it on the second 100 by .03 seconds. Nobody ever runs the second 200 that fast.
— We’ve always been told sprinters have to short and stride quickly. Bolt is 6-foot-5 and takes long strides. When he runs, he’s like a gazelle, attacking the pavement and the air around him like it owes him money.
— He can still get better. In both the Beijing Olympics and in the 200 this week, Bolt slowed a little in the last five meters. He can go faster. He can run a 19.05 200, and maybe a unbelievable 9.4 in the 100.
Listen to veteran track and field people talk about Bolt, and it’s like they used to talk about M.J. when he first started with the Bulls.
TV announcer Ato Boldon just keeps screaming “Oh my God!” when talking about Bolt. Michael Johnson, never known for humility, can’t get over how “ridiculous” Bolt is.
Is the kid a little cocky? Absolutely. He says things like “I’m on my way to becoming a legend,” and talks about being up for knightood.
But wouldn’t you be a little in love with yourself if you broke the a world record in the last FIVE major meets you’ve competed at?
Now … the big elephant in the room here is this: Is he clean? So far, he’s tested positive for nothing more than excitement. Track and field has been plagued with so many superstars who flash on the scene, then are disgraced by drug testing results.
Ben Johnson. Marion Jones. Justin Gatlin. Just to name a few.
I don’t know if Bolt is clean or dirty. I pray that he’s doing all this legitimately, because it’s such a good story. But a fellow scribe of mine, Jerome Solomon of the Houston Chronicle, wrote a great piece saying that Bolt is providing so much joy, we shouldn’t race to assume he’s guilty.
“You can’t rob me of my joy,” Solomon writes. “He is the most amazing, entertaining athlete on the planet.”
I couldn’t agree more. If it turns out he’s cheating, well, I’ll be sad because he’s such a remarkable runner.
For now, I’m just going to enjoy this Jamaican kid lift everyone higher, higher and higher.