2009 Athlete of the Year: Usain Bolt

January 1, 2010

2009 was not supposed to be the Year of Usain Bolt.

The "Lightning" Bolt had already enjoyed his moment in the spotlight, setting the world afire with his record-setting 100m and 200m sprints at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Because 2009 was not an Olympic year, Bolt's sport did not figure to get quite the same amount of media attention as in Beijing. Besides, there were other stories of significance capturing the attention of the sports world, ranging from Manny Pacquiao's rise through boxing's weight classes to A-Rod's dramatic story of disgrace and redemption from steroid abuse.

Moreover, after Bolt's astounding Olympics, conventional wisdom had assumed that he probably could not top what he accomplished in Beijing, regardless of what level of media coverage he received.

Conventional wisdom was wrong.

The 6'5" Bolt clearly stood above the rest of the sporting world this year, propelling the boundaries of track and field to unthinkable heights. And in doing so, he transcended his sport altogether, emerging as an international symbol of athletic greatness.

In the end, what ultimately set Bolt apart was his ability to do "the impossible."

Rough Start

For Bolt, 2009 initially had all the indications of a more difficult post-Olympic journey.

In the months after Beijing, Bolt sustained injuries in an automobile accident, hindering his training during the early part of the season. As a result, Bolt was forced to play catch-up with his competitors with regard to his overall fitness.

More importantly, his chief rival, Tyson Gay, began mounting a serious threat to Bolt's supremacy in the sprints. Gay clocked a blazing 19.58 second 200m time at the Reebok Grand Prix - the third fastest mark in history at the time.

When Bolt ran a slightly slower 19.59 200m of his own in Europe, it appeared that the gap between the two had narrowed that much more.

Clearly, a repeat of Bolt's 100m and 200m double in Beijing was not going to be easy.

Bolt Reigns Supreme: The Berlin World Championships

With the World Championships being held in Berlin, all thoughts immediately reflected back to Jesse Owens and his incredible 4 gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games. Appropriately, Berlin would once again witness history from another dominant young sprint star, as Bolt would go on to capture the imagination of track fans with two world records and three gold medals in the 100m, the 200m, and the 4 X 100m relay.

The 100m

In the 100m, Bolt cruised through the early heats, while rivals Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell also posted solid times. By all indications, a competitive, fast final was expected. Although Bolt was favored, he certainly was no lock.

In the final, however, everything changed.

Bolt got off to an outstanding start, and by 30 meters the race was essentially over. Tyson Gay tried to close with his excellent top end speed, but Bolt's turnover and superior stride length proved to be too much. When he crossed the tape in a record-setting 9.58 seconds, Bolt had managed to shave .11 off his previous world best.

In the last 30 years, the 100m record typically has fallen in smaller, hundreths of a second increments.

Bolt's performance, however, took more than a tenth of a second off his previous mark, a near unheard of breakthrough in the event. By smashing through the 9.6 barrier altogether, Bolt also pushed forward mankind's imagination of just how fast the human body can run.

The 200m

After Bolt's 100m victory, Tyson Gay withdrew from the 200m due to a nagging injury. With Gay's departure and Bolt's explosive 100m performance days earlier, it was largely understood that everyone in the 200m was running for second place.

So, while a routinely dominant Bolt win was expected, a performance exceeding his astounding 100m record was not.

Apparently, lightning can strike twice.

In the 200m, three of Bolt's competitors managed to run impressive sub-20 times, yet the race was not even close. Bolt's blazing sprint of 19.19 seconds again smashed the previous world record of 19.30 seconds, and once more made the unthinkable, possible.

When Bolt established his 19.30 mark only one year earlier in Beijing, that record supposedly had accomplished the impossible by surpassing Michael Johnson's incredible 19.32 run in the '96 Games. Johnson's time was expected to stand for generations, similar to Bob Beamon's 1968 long jump record.

Bolt again had dropped his own sprint record by more than a tenth of a second.

Bolt's Legacy on the Track

From a simple view of the stopwatch, Bolt is currently history's fastest man. But if the past is any guide, Bolt's records eventually will fall to future generations, rendering his recent clockings moot.

So, to understand his true place among the greats of his sport, a more comprehensive view must occur.

Presently, Bolt is only 23, and far from reaching his prime. A lifelong 200m runner, Bolt has only recently learned the 100m, and thus, figures to improve in the event in the next few years.

Already Bolt is displaying technical improvements in his racing, as he posted quicker reaction and start times in Berlin than in his Beijing races. When one considers that other top sprinters such as Maurice Green did not peak until near age 30, it becomes almost scary to think that Bolt is capable of producing even faster times.

Still, great times and a high upside alone do not paint the whole picture of Bolt's place in history. Much more revealing is the manner in which he has been winning compared to other past sprinting greats.

Carl Lewis became the premiere sprinter and long jumper of his era by posting quality times and extensive winning streaks throughout his career. Nevertheless, Lewis, for all his medals, never lowered the 100m world record by a whopping tenth-of-a-second level increment as Bolt did in 2009.

Even more impressive is the fact of just who Bolt is beating along the way. His rival, Tyson Gay, has posted some of history's fastest times, and would have been this era's top dog, but for Bolt.

Gay's 9.71 100m time in Berlin would have been a foreseeable world record time for this current generation of sprinters. Unfortunately, for Gay, Bolt has skipped about two generations of projected sprinting progression by breaking the 9.6 wall.

In other words, Bolt's accomplishments already could render him history's greatest track and field athlete based simply on his manner of winning.

For two straight years he has put up Beamon-esque performances by establishing records which could take decades to surpass after his retirement. In fact, associating the name of Beamon with Bolt might not do Bolt justice, as unlike Beamon, Bolt has put up his jaw-dropping numbers on more than one occasion.

International Icon

It's one thing for an athlete to rise to the top of his sport. It's an altogether different matter when that athlete can transcend his sport and become an iconic figure.

Bolt is on the verge of doing the latter, if he has not gotten there already.

From Carl Lewis to Donovan Bailey to Maurice Green, track and field is filled with past claimants to the title of world's fastest man. Each of those 100m kings has enjoyed his share of fame and success, but unlike with Bolt, their worldwide standing was more limited.

For track athletes in general, it takes a unique individual to grow beyond the bounds of the sport. Media coverage is limited during non-Olympic years, especially in the U.S. So while a top track star might have his or her share of fame, it can often be on a lesser, more marginalized scale than athletes in some other sports.

Bolt, however, has rewritten those rules.

Certainly, his mind-blowing times are one factor, but that alone is not the sole reason for his broad appeal. Instead, his charisma and personality also play a huge role.

Bolt's happy-go-lucky vibe, smile, and occasional pre and post-race dancing, convey a genuine positivity that cuts across cultural lines and differs drastically from the serious game faces of most sprinters. More importantly, his ability to have fun immediately before competition, and then instantaneously flip the switch and perform in the heat of the moment, reminds one of Muhammad Ali.

When one considers that he comes from a small country and that he did not have the marketing benefits of an NCAA career, his quick rise is even more impressive.

Undoubtedly, at this early stage in his career, Bolt is one of the more recognizable athletes on the planet. Although not as politically active as Ali, Bolt does share some of his potential for global appeal. This was seen in Berlin, where many other athletes put up quality performances, but only Bolt received a 3-ton chunk of the Berlin Wall as a gift.

Quite simply, in 2009, Bolt had no peer on or off the track.

As such, he is TheDailySportsHerald's 2009 Athlete of the Year.

By Mike Elliott
Staff Editor for TheDailySportsHerald.com

No comments:

Post a Comment

We encourage all intelligent, passionate comments. Please refrain from any ignorant, racist, or offensive rants.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...