Tonight, Usain Bolt aims to become the first man ever successfully to defend both the 100 and 200 metres Olympic titles. Whatever happens in the 200 metres final, however, Bolt’s awe-inspiring victory in the 100 metres – in 9.63 seconds, an Olympic record only bettered by his own world record of 9.58 – has secured his place, not only as the fastest man on Earth today, but as the fastest man in history.
Bolt is the embodiment of more than a century of progress in the art and science of sprinting. A fascinating new American video uses graphics to put his latest triumph in some historical perspective. It shows just how far behind Bolt every men’s 100-metre gold medallist since the modern games began in 1896 would have finished. That first winner, Thomas Burke, won the 100 metres in Athens in 12 seconds, which would leave him with 20 metres still to run as Bolt crosses the finish line. Since then, the graphic shows a steady – though by no means unbroken – line of improving times, punctuated by notable breakthroughs, from Jesse Owens’ 10.3 seconds in Berlin in 1936 to Jim Hines becoming the first man to break the 10-second barrier in the Olympics, running 9.95 in Mexico in 1968 (still the greatest Games of all in my book, though maybe that is just showing my age), before ending in Bolt’s electrifying triumphs in Beijing 2008 – 9.69 seconds – and now London 2012 in that 9.63.
Vast improvements in diet, training, running tracks and shoes have brought us to the age of Usain Bolt. How much faster can a man go? The fact that the four fastest men of all time ran in the London final suggests we are far from reaching the peak of human powers. Indeed, that new video gives a glimpse of the future, noting that the American record for 15- to 16-year-old boys today – 10.27 seconds – would have won a bronze medal as recently as 1980 (albeit that was the Moscow Olympics, boycotted by the USA, when the gold medal went to Britain’s Alan Wells in 10.25 seconds, incidentally the last white man to win). Even Bolt’s historic records will not be forever.
A footnote: the video graphic notes that Carl Lewis, ‘gold medallist in Seoul in 1988’, who recorded 9.92 seconds, would have finished all of three metres behind Bolt in 2012. But Lewis of course did not win the 100 metres in 1988. He was destroyed on the track by Ben Johnson, who bulled over the line in a then-world record 9.79. Lewis was awarded the gold after Johnson failed a drugs test to become the greatest Olympic villain of all time. Yet Johnson – whose winning time in that final was not beaten by any gold medallist until Bolt – surely deserves his place in the history race. No drug has ever been proven to make a man run like he did that day.
In any case, he was hardly the first – or last – Olympic sprinter to look for an edge in the greatest race on Earth. No fewer than five of those 1988 finalists would eventually be caught up in drug scandals, including Britain’s Linford Christie (finished third, promoted to second, later won gold in Barcelona in 1992 but tested positive in both 1988 and 1999), and the squeaky clean Lewis himself, who won gold in Los Angeles in 1984 but failed a drug test in the run-up to Seoul – a result reversed, and covered up, by the US athletic authorities.
Surveying the remarkable acceleration of the men’s 100 metres through history, let us rejoice in the reign of Usain – and bring back Ben.