Usain runs fast. He runs like Tall Thing Runs, but faster, and he does a little dance afterwards, so that you know how fast he was. He is speed, man. I mean, if you had to invent a superhero whose superpower was to go really fast, there are only a few names you could go with. We've got The Flash, and Quicksilver, but if you pushed yourself, I think you'd also go with Bolt. Don't say Black Bolt, he wasn't fast, he was loud. Usain Bolt is fast. Usain Bolt, winner of the 100m and 200m gold medals for sprinting in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. You can't make stuff like this up.
I've followed sprinting since I was small. My dad used to tell me stories about Allan Wells, the great Scottish sprinter, and Allan Wells never broke 10 seconds, so when I was watching Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson going head-to-head in the late 80s I was in awe. That era was amazing. Suddenly you had to go under 10 seconds to win a sprint final; not only that, but the best guys were running under 9.9. It seemed superhuman. My dad and I were on the edge of our seats, and when Johnson ran 9.79s in Seoul we sat for a while in stunned silence. Surely, we thought, this is the limit of human capability. When he was busted for drugs it was almost a relief, and no one ran that fast again for a long time.
Recently they started going faster again. The 9.7 second mark seemed breakable - you had guys like Justin Gatlin and Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay assaulting it on a monthly basis. Out of nowhere, or apparently so, came Usain Bolt. He runs fast. As previously noted. The man is 6'5" and should not be a 100m sprinter — everyone knows that the tall guys can go fast but they don't have the coordination, so you get them to run the 200 and the 400, maybe even the 800, where their long legs can eat up the distance. The 100m is the pure discipline, goes the wisdom. It's for the pure specimens. The dancers. The lanky guys will just, like, fall over or something. So the Bolt, the 6'5" dancer, breaks the world record and goes 9.72 in the Jamaican nationals and suddenly everyone is talking about him, this teenager who's going to take over the world. He runs fast, real fast. There's something primal about it. He runs, he dances, he laughs. He doesn't care, but for a man who doesn't care, he sure does like to run.
In the Olympics, so many things happen, and there are so many events, and so many miles run before we all can sleep, and yet this tiny little event, this ten seconds of adrenaline, has us all captivated. Primal, right? Who is the fastest — flat out, no holding back, who is the fastest? And how fast can the fastest be? Surely, after all these centuries of history, haven't we reached the limit? And my father and I are on the edge of our seats again, in separate houses but joined by some kind of weird obsession. Bolt is making faces, he's dancing, he's pointing at the crowd. He wants us to know he doesn't care, but he's going to run fast. Not for us, for him. They're all in the blocks, and we want it to be special, and it is, it is. We blinked. 9.69 seconds. It didn't seem possible. I remembered when I was young and 9.90 seconds seemed incredible, when 9.80 seconds seemed unreal. 9.69 seconds, and he pulled up at the end and started celebrating. He spread his arms and thumped his chest 10 metres from the line, and started slowing, and he still ran 9.69 seconds. Do you know what that means? I don't. Michael Johnson was jumping up and down in the commentary box. You can see that on YouTube and it's hilarious. Later on, serious people who previously had speculated that we were reaching the outer limits of human possibility in the sprint race now began to speculate that we might see a man — this man — run under 9.5 seconds. He runs, Usain does. He runs really fast, that's what he does. Someone running that fast changes things. He changes your mind about things. You may not think it matters but it does.
He broke the 200m world record too, by .02s. If you don't think that's a big deal, you don't know anything about sprinting. That was Michael Johnson's record, and a lot of people thought it would never be broken. No one had ever even come close. When Johnson set it, he was so far ahead of the rest of the field it looked like the finish of the 1500m, and that's what it was like for Bolt too, running against the clock with the mortals trailing in his wake. He wanted that record: no showboating, no celebrating, pumping to the end, proving something to the people who didn't like his little dances. Then afterwards he did a little dance. He posed his imitation lightning bolt to the sky. Usain Bolt, what a name. You couldn't make it up.
Both of those world records were set into a 0.9m/s headwind. That's why no-one really knows how fast Usain can go. Almost every world sprint record ever set has been aided by a following wind, usually close to the legal limit. Bolt was running into the wind.
Since then he's been taking a rest. What does that mean for a superhero whose power is running? It means that he's still won every race he's run since the Olympics, but he's been relaxing and setting lazy times like 9.84 and 9.77. He and his fellow Jamaican Asafa Powell have now run 9 of the 10 fastest legal times in history. Bolt calls Asafa "fast man" and he is, he really is a fast man too. Asafa says he can go 9.6, Bolt says he can go 9.6, maybe he can go 9.5, he doesn't really know how fast he can go. In Jamaica he is a god, a grinning dancing god, Hermes or Apollo or Jah, and to the rest of the world, he's a prodigy, a joy, the refreshment of an archetype, something to keep fathers and sons on the edge of their seats a little longer. Fast, real fast, and fast means something. It's primal.