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Three’s a crowd?

As I sat watching in front of the TV last weekend, I have to say I don’t think I have ever seen anything quite like it. A combination of pace, power and sheer sangfroid equalling the absolute destruction of opponents.

But enough about Arsenal’s 6-1 evisceration of Everton at Goodison Park.

Let’s talk about the unfeasibly appropriately-named Usain Bolt and a headline-stealing night at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin.

9.58 seconds. That’s less than the time it will have taken you to read to this point. And it was all the time Bolt needed to shatter his own world record. In an event where we are accustomed to seeing the fastest time lowered one or two hard-earned hundredths at a time, Bolt took a barely conscionable 0.11s off the mark he set in Beijing last year. Since that memorable night, many have wondered what time he might have clocked had he not started celebrating 20 metres or more from the line.

Now we know.

In truth, the race was over within the first ten metres, by which time Bolt had already caught the fast-starting Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell. With his long limbs unfurled, the rest was a foregone conclusion. He completed the race in 41 strides compared with 44.5 for Gay, who merely set the third-fastest time ever – quick enough to have won every race in history, except the finals in Beijing and Berlin.

You have to feel sorry for Tyson Gay. In any other era, we would be lauding his incredible rivalry with Asafa Powell; Powell setting the big times, Gay winning the big titles. Instead, he and Powell are little more than the supporting cast, the brilliant fast men whose presence serves only to emphasise the freakish talent of Bolt.

The impact Bolt – who did not post his first sub-10 second time until May last year – has had on athletics’ blue riband event cannot be underestimated. In those 15 months, he has taken 0.16s off Powell’s previous world record of 9.74 (by comparison, it took 16 years to improve the record by 0.16s to 9.74) and run 15 sub-10 races, including four of the seven fastest times ever. He has broken the world record three times, a unique feat in this event; only three others (Powell, Carl Lewis, Jim Hines) have managed it more than once in the modern era.

It shouldn’t be that easy. In the forty or so years since electronic timing was first introduced (allowing times to be accurately recorded to the nearest hundredth of a second), only 69 men have legally broken the 10-second barrier for the 100 metres. 39 of those have happened in the past ten years alone; all but eight in the 20 years since 1989.

Only 19 men have recorded official times under 9.9. And if you were able to line up all of the fastest men in history together, only two – Gay and Powell – would finish within a quarter of a second of Bolt’s Sunday night jog, equivalent to a deficit of three metres or more.

That’s how much faster Usain Bolt is than anyone else we have ever seen.

I can think of only two other track and field athletes in the modern era who have so utterly dominated their events.

Edwin Moses won 122 consecutive races at the 400 metre hurdles, including two Olympic and two World Championship golds. His former world record of 47.02s, set 26 years ago, remains the second-fastest ever, and he still holds nine of the 20 fastest times on record (no one else has more than two).

Like Bolt, Michael Johnson was considered something of a freak of nature, by virtue of his unique short, choppy running stride. In a career in which he dominated at 200 metres, 400 metres and as part of the American 4×400 metre relay team, he collected four Olympic and eight World Championship gold medals. He held the 200 metres world record for 12 years until Bolt beat it in Beijing; he still holds 12 of the 20 fastest times ever. His 400 metres world record of 43.18s still stands ten years later; only three others have come within half a second of that time (indeed, only eight other men have run sub-44s).

Edwin Moses. Michael Johnson. That’s pretty exalted (and exclusive) company, and given his rate of progress – he is still only 22, well short of a sprinter’s traditional peak – we may one day reflect on how Usain Bolt was in fact an athlete in a league of his own.

Bolt states he will be the next man to lower the record, and that he believes he is capable of running sub-9.5. 15 months ago, we would have laughed at such a statement; after Sunday night, we are all believers.

But wait: there’s more.

Barring injury or disqualification, Bolt will line up as the runaway favourite in the 200 metres final tomorrow night. Gay, a real threat in this event in which he holds the fastest time this year, has already withdrawn injured. So if, as expected, he does indeed run away from the rest of the field, he will have his sights set on lowering his own mark of 19.30s. Only twice ever – the Olympic finals in Beijing and Atlanta – has anyone got within 0.27s of that.

Lightning may not strike twice. But, as in Beijing, we may see Usain Bolt strike for the second time tomorrow evening. The world expects, Usain. Time to deliver the impossible.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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