By Robert Taylor, Special to Trackalerts.com
In assessing and deciding on Usain Bolt's greatest race we would have to look at multiple factors. First, one would have to compile the list of races that would qualify for the selection process. Many might not agree but I am including the 9.72 he ran at Icahn Stadium New York in 2008 because it was his first senior world record.
Both the 100m and the 200m finals of the Beijing 2008 Olympics would be a consensus nomination by most if not all fans. The next two would be the 2009 Berlin world championship 100m and 200m finals. The last race would be the London 100m finals.
In breaking down the races and thoroughly analyzing each, I start with the Icahn Stadium 9.72 race. Previously on May 3rd 2008 Bolt ran a scintillating time of 9.76. It was a surprise to many and some associated the time with a wind reading error or a clock malfunction in Kingston Jamaica. Twenty eight days later when he ran a then new world record of 9.72 it shocked many including me, but it also legitimise the 9.76 he previously ran. That was the beginning of Bolt's dominance. Incidentally that was the last time Bolt has raced at the Icahn Stadium meet; It was then known as the Reebok Grand Prix.
Subsequently, Reebok was taken over by Adidas who changed the name of the meet to Adidas Grand prix, now a Diamond league event. The long standing family feud between Puma, a sponsor of Bolt and Adidas makes a Bolt return to the Adidas meet next to impossible. The Beijing Olympics was one of the most astonishing performances anyone will ever see in the field of athletics. That men's 100m final is something those who saw it live will never forget. We have all seen an athlete dominate a race before, but no one has ever seen it like this in an Olympic 100m final.
Bolt stretch his hands out, slapped his chest while easing through the finish line with a world record time of 9.69. No one, and I mean no one, expected the 9.7 barrier to be broken anytime soon, yet here was an athlete accomplishing it and making it look so easy. The 2008 Olympics 200m record was something to behold. Very few believed that the Michael Johnson record of 19.32 was going to be broken anytime soon. This belief was rooted in the fact that no one with the exception of Michael Johnson 19.32 had run in the 19.5’s before much less the 19.4’s.
It seemed like a record far ahead of its time so when Bolt ran the 19.30 it was not only a new Olympic and world record but a time that surpassee the holy grail of 200m speed at the time. Funny how Bolt made so many forget how awestruck people were when Johnson set the world record. Not even Johnson himself thought his record was going to be broken even after seeing the devastating 100m finals Bolt ran a few days earlier. Berlin 2009 was the site where Bolt actually cemented his status as the best we have ever seen. Some say this is a once in a generation athlete and we may never see another athlete like him in our lifetime. The 100m race was so fast, Tyson Gay came second with a time of 9.71 and he was not close to Bolt.
Tyson ran the third fastest championship time of all time but unfortunately for him he ran it in the Bolt dominated era. The winning time of 9.58 would have been unthinkable even a year before. This was not only a convincing win but it is the only time any athlete has ever gone under 9.6 under any condition. Equally astonishing was the 19.19 200m race. It actually makes the previous record of 19.30 look pedestrian. The London 2012 Olympics 100m final reinforced the belief of how great an athlete Bolt is. The way he finished that race it was as if the others were standing still in time.
He pulled away from the field the way a young athlete who matures early would handle less mature athletes in his age group. The only difference is that this was unbelievably an Olympic 100m final.
Here we see Bolt literally outclass the field in an Olympics 100m final where all the top sprinters of the world were present.
After looking over these races, the superlatives and the amazement they engendered it is time to select the best. By a process of elimination I would drop the 9.72 first. Though it carries great significance because it was his first senior world record, unlike the others this was a one off race and was not in a championship setting and after rounds. The next to go would be the London 2012 100m final. This was a great performance regardless of the standard use, but the others have the same level of difficulty but with the added benefit of being world records. My next process of elimination would be the importance level of each of the two types or race.
The 100m has always ruled king. Winning the 200m though is important, it does not rise to the level of the 100m champion. We have never heard of a sprinter saying I am the greatest sprinter after winning the 200m, though the US media covering the Atlanta Olympics of 1996 mistakenly divided the 200m into two and concluded that Michael Johnson was the fastest man in the world. This probably was done out of jingoism mixed with a little lack of understanding about sprinting and speed. Thus the final two would be the 2008 Beijing Olympics 100m and the Berlin 2009 world championship 100m finals.
In Berlin we saw the fastest time ever ran, while in Beijing we saw the most iconic and unexpected 100m performance we will ever see. When Bolt ran the 100m finals in Berlin many were not surprised with him breaking the 9.6 barrier. After seeing the Beijing performance there was an ongoing debate raging about how fast he could have gone. Some said he gave up a high 9.5 time by celebrating too early and easing down before crossing the finish line, while others say his momentum was enough to carry him through so he did not lose that much time celebrating. In my opinion, the Beijing performance tells me he could have gone faster and the Berlin time only helped to reinforce my belief.
My conclusion is that the Berlin race is the fastest of all time but the Beijing 100m was his greatest race of them all. Bolt ran four rounds of competition and he not only destroyed the previous record, but he did it in style (a style some question as showboating). That race made Bolt an iconic performer and of course the Berlin performance helped with him being the most popular athlete in track and field. That Beijing 100m race made him not only into a great sprinter, but a great performer as well.
My conclusion is also based on the fact that the Olympics are seen as the pinnacle of athletics, and an Olympic champion will trump a world champion every time. Bolt races have become an event where we see fans turn out in record breaking numbers, this is something no other athlete in track and field has done . I remember his appearance at the 2010 Penn Relays, and I have never seen that many fans or heard such decibel level before or after a track and field event and I have been going to Penn Relays since the days of Carl Lewis; so I have a wide frame to compare.
Bolt popularity and iconic status all started after the Beijing 2008 Olympics 100m final and for this and the other reasons I have listed, Beijing 100m is Usain Bolt's greatest race of them all.
**The views expressed in this article are those of the author (Robert Taylor) and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Trackalerts.com.