Everyone Else Is Racing for Second, Maybe Forever: The Unstoppable Greatness of Usain Bolt

A Blog About the Olympic Games
Aug. 5 2012 6:53 PM

Everyone Else Is Racing for Second, Maybe Forever: The Unstoppable Greatness of Usain Bolt

Usain Bolt
Usain Bolt of Jamaica celebrates winning gold in the men's 100-meter final.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images.

A couple of hours before today’s men’s 100-meter final, Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden made a bold prediction on Twitter: “OK. Go big or go home. My 100m pick: 1) Gatlin 2) Bolt 3) Blake.” Layden wasn’t the only one who was betting against Usain Bolt. The Jamaican sprinter hadn’t run against a 100-meter field this stacked since 2009, when he set the world record of 9.58 seconds in Berlin. In 2011, a false start knocked him out of the world championships. At the Jamaican Olympic Trials earlier this year, he lost to Yohan Blake in both the 100 and 200 meters. In March, he lost a race to Prince Harry.

But in London, the 25-year-old Bolt left no doubt that he’s history’s greater sprinter. In the semis he ran a 9.87 while doing the backstroke across the finish line. In the final, against the best field in Olympic history, he ran a breathtaking, no-doubt-about-it 100 meters, blowing by Blake and Justin Gatlin in an Olympic-record time of 9.63 seconds.

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The knock against Bolt has always been that he’s a cocky showboat who doesn’t work as hard as everyone else. With his relatively poor results this year, which he attributed to back problems, it seemed like the sporting gods might be punishing him for his shoddy work ethic. Bolt clearly trains hard, but when you’re prone to saying things like “a lot of people think I’m lazy—which I am sometimes,” you invite these sorts of criticisms.

Blake’s preparation was not at all in question. The 22-year-old Jamaican, who won the 2011 world championships after his fellow Jamaican’s false start, was christened “The Beast” by Bolt. “When you're sleeping, I'm working, I'm toiling through the night,” Blake told The Guardian earlier this year. “It's what great men do.”

But as Michael Phelps just showed in the pool, greatness isn’t about who works the hardest or practices the most. Like Phelps in swimming, Bolt’s just better than everyone else, no matter how hard they train. In today’s final, the defending world champion Blake (9.75) and the 2004 Olympic champion Gatlin (9.79) both ran personal bests. Bolt crushed them both. If they succeeded in anything, it was in forcing the world’s fastest man to run all the way through the line—a full-on, all-out sprint that produced the second-fastest 100-meter dash in history.

While Bolt left London’s Olympic Stadium with his fourth gold medal, Tyson Gay still has none to his name. On Sunday, Gay finished fourth in a time, 9.80, that would have won every Olympic final that didn’t feature Usain Bolt. The American sprinter broke down in tears afterwards. “I gave it my best,” he said. But when you’re going up against greatness, your best will never be good enough.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.