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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The One National Holiday Republicans Hope You Forget

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.

Doublex

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

Politico Wonders Why Gabby Giffords Is So “Ruthless” on Gun Control

Behold
Sept. 23 2014 4:45 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 23 2014 6:40 PM Coalition of the Presentable Don’t believe the official version. Meet America’s real allies in the fight against ISIS.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
  Life
Outward
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 8:38 PM “No One in This World” Is One of Kutiman’s Best, Most Impressive Songs
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 1:50 PM Oh, the Futility! Frogs Try to Catch Worms off of an iPhone Video.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 23 2014 11:00 AM Google Exec: Climate Change Deniers Are “Just Literally Lying”
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 23 2014 7:27 PM You’re Fired, Roger Goodell If the commissioner gets the ax, the NFL would still need a better justice system. What would that look like?