Sporting Life

Bolt leaves memory of a smile, speed and an unforgettable night in 2008

Sport's coolest wind is about to blow itself out and the world is about to get slower and duller. Usain Bolt, who made locomotion a lark, is going to start only walking. Damn.

Bolt never came anything but first but in my head he is second. The most extraordinary single feat I saw "live" in sport took 10.8 seconds or thereabouts. Maradona's second goal against England in 1986, a piece of zig-zagging beauty, was a composition. Bolt's offering was an explosion. He ran in a straight line for 9.69 seconds in Beijing in 2008 and for many he made the greatest impact in sport in the shortest time.

Maradona in 1986 dazzled on my TV. But in 2008, through some cosmic fluke, my colleague Marc Lim, an Indian writer and I managed to sneak down almost to track level at the Bird's Nest, sitting on chairs in front of a photographers' pit, almost in line with the finish. When Bolt hit the tape he defeated a field, a clock, history and our imagination.

Since 776 BC, when the only event at the ancient Olympics was the Stade, a roughly 200m race, humankind has recorded flight. But perhaps no one explained speed on foot better to us than Bolt and he did that by creating The Gap. It would be a divide that would define him.

It's hard to appreciate the idea of "fast" when everyone on a track is running in the vicinity of 10 seconds. A tight field separated by tiny margins. One runner may be .02 quicker and half a shoulder ahead. Another might be decelerating by a similar margin and a quarter-step behind. There's no sense of someone racing past another. Till Bolt starts to move away from the pack in Beijing and starts creating The Gap and you can feel his speed.

For the first time in 27 Olympic 100m finals, six men will go under 10 seconds. Yet Bolt is so fast he makes quick men look slow. All our lives we've used the phrase "higher gear" but now you can see him shift up and peel away like a getaway car.

Bolt has shades of Muhammad Ali for he has a swaggering, charming conceit and yet the American's tale was complex and the Jamaican's gift is his simplicity. He grins and gallops. Flirts and flies. He doesn't spark discussions on race, religion, poetry, politics, but he laughs, dances, seduces and returns people to a sport they have strayed from. He asks for 10 seconds from us every now and then and it's the best investment in time we've ever made.

Usain Bolt, despite being the second-slowest starter out of the blocks, wins the 100m final at the 2008 Beijing Olympics by a decisive margin, 0.2 sec ahead of his rivals. ST FILE PHOTO

Photo-finish cameras now take 10,000 images per second and they are designed to separate lunging sprinters by an earlobe. That's how we thought we liked our races to end, in a mad, scrambling, close finish. But only a genius can change our minds and make us enjoy a victory by a few metres. This is the thrill of The Gap that Bolt creates.

In Atlanta 1996 the difference between first and second place was .05 of a second, in 2000 it was .12, in 2004 it was .01. In Beijing it was .20. But we will study timings only after he finishes; it is the picture of him leading which is more persuasive than any number. He, the second-slowest starter, is metres ahead, one lace open, cruising, slapping his chest, a finishing technique we're unfamiliar with.

Perhaps only Pele, 17 at the 1958 World Cup, described by the team psychologist as lacking "the necessary fighting spirit" and yet scoring six goals, has made as astonishing a first impact on the public imagination. In Beijing, the crowd gasps, people looking at each other as if to confirm what they saw was real.

Can humans really do that?

No, wait, is he one?

Bolt is unique because he never let us down, a force of nature - fuelled by chicken McNuggets - who had an academic paper written on his performance in Beijing, called How Fast Could Usain Bolt Have Run?

I got the paper yesterday, read it and laughed because only Bolt, who did not seem to care for science, could get an Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics in Oslo to study him. Conclusion: He could have gone faster, thus The Gap could have been even bigger. In his last 100m this weekend it probably won't be, but I will be up on Sunday at 4.45am Singapore time to watch. With him it's best not to be late, for he's often ahead of time.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2017, with the headline Bolt leaves memory of a smile, speed and an unforgettable night in 2008. Subscribe