Usain BoltHe has re-written the sprinting record books twice and is on the verge of another glorious chapter. Meet the fastest man who ever lived. At the risk of undermining the very purpose of our Icons Hall of Fame, very few of them require much by way of justification. To even be considered is to acknowledge legendary status, leaving us merely to expand, rather than explain. Some however, with the current entrant at the front of the queue, would need a compelling argument to deny them entry. Usain St. Leo Bolt may just be the icon's icon. In all honesty, the delay to his induction has been caused by a desire to see it coincide with him compete in the London Olympics, rather than any bizarre and manufactured series of doubts. He is the fastest human being the planet has ever witnessed, runs with unparalleled grace and excitement and has been almost single handedly responsible for returning the Olympic 100m final back to its rightful place as the planet's most thrilling sporting event.
One of a kindAnd 'event' is the right word to accompany Bolt's dominance. Nobody has ever reduced the competition to the role of supporting cast quite so completely, nor captured the attention of both fans and casual observers alike. Be it for his talents as an athlete or his abilities as a showman, the sport, and indeed the wider world, have rarely met anyone quite like him.
Born in Sherwood Content, in Trelawny, Bolt lived out an idyllic Jamaican childhood, admitting cheerfully that he didn't really think about "anything other than sports". He moved through the ranks, breaking records from school to regional to world junior, yet somehow found himself tagged as "lazy" and "ill- disciplined". There was a suspicion that, come his entry to the senior ranks, he would suffer for his laid back attitude.
Injury wiped out his 2004 Olympics and people muttered that, at six feet five, he was really a 400m runner, scared of doing the hard work the distance required. It was muttering which ignored both the determination of Bolt, and the guiding hand of his coach, Glen Mills.
Comeback KingHe was desperate to run 100m, but Mills told him the route was barred until he knuckled down and broke Don Quarrie's Jamaican record for 200m. In 2007, at the Jamaican Championships, Bolt ran 19.75, lopping 0.11 seconds from Quarrie's 36 year-old mark, lodging the most staggering job application in athletics history.
His first senior outing over 100m saw him run 10.03, his third 9.76 and his fifth, a month later, 9.72, a new world record. Tyson Gay finished second, and was asked about Bolt's prowess. "His knees were going past my face!" he responded, confirming the notion of the short, squat sprinter was being brought to an end by one, extraordinary man.
In the run up to the 2008 Beijing Games Bolt ran 19.67 for 200m, and announced that he rather fancied his chances doubling up in the Olympic sprints. It was a decision which was to put him alongside the athletic gods.
The Beijing 100m final, on a warm, August evening, was arguably the most extraordinary moment the modern Games have ever witnessed. We knew Bolt was fast, faster than anyone in history, and we appreciated that sport could offer few characters to match. But the world was full of sprinters who talked loudly and made big promises – too full. What an entire generation had never seen was a sportsman who could claim the spotlight in the way Muhammad Ali had done, four decades earlier. What we yearned for was someone who could combine the loudest personality with the greatest performance, on the biggest stage of them all. And then Bolt ran, and we knew.
The race became a procession at about the 40m mark, as Bolt found gears the others did not possess. The Trinidadian, Richard Thompson, led until that point, before Bolt, in the space of 20 metres, took a two metre lead. It was acceleration the like of which had never been seen before, and it lasted until 20 metres from the line, when Bolt turned to the crowd, beating his chest, yelling and nodding. 44 years earlier Ali, then as Cassius Clay, beat Sonny Liston, something people had thought impossible. “I shook up the world!” yelled Clay, “I shook up the world!” 44 years on, Bolt’s run remains the closest anyone has come to replicating the moment.
The clock stopped at 9.69 seconds, with no following wind. The experts claimed it could have been far quicker, had the celebrations been far less, but nobody cared. We had just seen genius in action – not the fake, trite sort of genius, which football commentators acclaim twice a match, but the once in a lifetime sort. The genius of the sort of athlete we’d never seen before, and instinctively knew we might not see again.
Five days later, he turned the 200m final into another parade. The race was over after about 50m, as he ate up the stagger long before the home straight arrived. With a flying start, he accelerated to a speed faster than we had ever seen a human being move on an athletics track. The photo finish picture makes it look like nobody else turned up, as Bolt demolished the field, winning by almost seven metres and breaking Michael Johnson’s extraordinary world record, with a time of 19.30.
Three days later, he was part of the Jamaican sprint relay team, who won gold and shattered the world record by three tenths of a second. One week, three golds, three world records and billions of new fans. Bolt had changed not just the sport of athletics, but engraved himself on the minds of most of the planet.
A year later he arrived in Berlin for the world championships, the most famous sportsman of them all. How would he deal with the nerves, people asked? Would the pressure get to him? Could he possibly match Beijing?
Making historyIn the 100m final, Tyson Gay exploded from the blocks and ran an extraordinary 9.71 seconds. It should have been good enough for gold – how can you run 9.71 and not win a 100m race? When Usain Bolt, one lane to your left, runs 9.58, that’s how. If Beijing had been incredible, Berlin defied description. Bolt was single-handedly putting records out of the reach of an entire generation of sprinters.
Come the 200m, and he produced what was, for many, his greatest run yet. This time, the race was over before it began. Watching videos it’s possible to see the faces of his opponents as the moments before the race pass by. The expressions are bereft of either hope or expectation. They are the supporting cast, and to a man, they know it. They try to pretend otherwise, but the eyes and the body language give them away. Fate has doomed them to share their careers with a legend.
Bolt came out of the blocks that night and pushed – really worked hard around the bend – removing the distraction of other runners inside the first two dozen strides. From there, it was all about driving against the clock, striding fast and long as the tiredness began to bite, surging into the unknown. He hurtled through the line in 19.19 seconds, shattering his own world record, carving a further chunk off a time experts had said even he could not repeat.
And then he danced, and cavorted and struck his ‘To Di World’ pose. He celebrated with mascots, draped himself in a Jamaican flag, and began a lap of honour as long and lingering as his race had been savage and swift. In the space of a year, Bolt had destroyed all the certainties, re-written the coaching manuals and amended the record books unlike anyone before him.
There were blips, most famously a false start in Daegu two years later, which cost him his world 100m crown, but any reports of a loss of focus were swiftly spiked after his 200m victory, achieved through a dazzling run of 19.40, and a further, staggering relay world record.
And now, he comes to London, the most eagerly sought after and anticipated performer in the entire Olympic family. There is something about Bolt which defies complete description, something which has to be seen to be understood. That moment of acceleration, when he selects over-drive and moves away from the field, makes the hairs stand up on the back of the most cynical neck.
It is every big key change, dramatic film ending end theatrical tour de force rolled into one. It is the knowledge that nobody, ever, since the beginning of time, has seen a man run that fast. Bolt’s isn’t a technical talent - he doesn’t pole vault or throw the javelin. We don’t need to have what he does explained to us in order to understand its majesty.
We just have to sit there, enjoy the show and marvel at his genius. Fate has decreed that we are around to watch the greatest of them all, in his absolute prime. It’s not so much a treat, as a privilege. Not so much a legend, as an Icon. Words Mick Collins Photography Getty Images