Lewis was the greatest track star ever to lace on spikes, but for most of his career he was not the World's Fastest Man. Lewis didn't run for world records. He ran to win and measured his success in victories, not numbers. At age 21, he missed a chance at the 200-meter record because he hot-dogged at the finish. "I run against opponents, not against absents," Lewis explained.
Eventually, Lewis did break the 100-meter world record, at least technically. His 9.92 at the Seoul Olympics was ratified two years after the fact, when Ben Johnson's times were stricken from the books. Lewis' reign was brief, as Leroy Burrell soon sped away with the record. Lewis would set the standard once more, only to have Burrell pass him again. But with or without the best times in the world, Lewis was always the dominant sprinter of his era.
It's not like that at other distances. In the same 24 years that the 100-meter record has been ticking toward the limits of human speed, the 200-meter record has been broken just twice, both times by Michael Johnson. At the Atlanta Olympics, he outdistanced the field like Secretariat winning the Belmont, chopping one-third of a second off the mark. And there it has stood for 11 years, a monument to Johnson's supremacy. The 400-meter record has also been broken twice, most recently by Johnson. Sebastian Coe's 1981 record of 1:41.73 in the 800 meters was long considered the greatest track performance ever. It stood for 16 years, before Wilson Kipketer took it down.
It makes sense that the 100-meter record gets broken more often than marks at longer distances. You can go after a sprint record at any track meet. Not only did Powell run his 9.74 at a small-time event called the Rieti Grand Prix, he did it in a heat. Opportunities to run blazing times at longer distances are few and far between. No one's going to chase, say, the 800 record in a heat and risk tiring themselves out for the final. And no one would dare go for the record at a major championship and risk bonking out of a medal.
Johnson, Kipketer, and Coe are enduring names in track and field history because they won medals and set world records. Powell isn't in their league. He doesn't even have their respect. In a column for the BBC, Michael Johnson declared that Powell is "not a great competitor, you can see it in his eyes" and accused him of giving up when Tyson Gay passed him at the World Championships. When Powell set the record, he lamely explained that he was "too tense" that day and that "the real Powell is the one from today, not the Osaka one."
The excuse sounds even lamer now that he's passing up a chance to prove that he can beat Gay. To be fair, Gay has also avoided rematches with Powell, saying he doesn't want to race the Jamaican unless he's "100 percent." Powell and Gay probably won't meet again until next August, in Beijing. If Powell wins there, he can put his name next to Michael Johnson's in the track pantheon. If not, he'll be just another World's Fastest Man. It won't be long before we have a new one, in a sleeker bodysuit, on a springier track, with a stronger wind at his back.