About a fortnight before the World Championships in Moscow,Jamaican Asafa Powell and the USs Tyson Gay men who had registered two of three fastest 100 metre times ever had tested positive for banned substances. A day later,Powells compatriot,Yohan Blake,the reigning world champion,withdrew from the event due to a hamstring injury. Just a week before the Worlds began,a leading biomechanic made news by announcing that Usain Bolts 100m time of 9.58 seconds,which made him the fastest person ever,had been a freak occurrence. A number of factors had played a part in it,including age. So the chances of the now 26-year-old dictating terms to the rest of his field were slim. Another piece de resistance by the athlete seemed out of the question.
Yet this was what he had done in some of the greatest arenas the Olympics and the Worlds. The artistes who had ushered in runnings age of glory had faded. Jamaica rocked by a doping scandal that had netted high-profile names was not the running cradle it once used to be. The sports renaissance was over.
Until Bolt,totally unaffected by the rot surrounding him,set ablaze the Moscow Worlds by breezing his way to three gold medals,one in each of the three events (100m,200m and 4x100m) that he participated in. Against this troubled backdrop,Bolts show of dominance which helped him match the eight gold won by Michael Johnson and Carl Lewis respectively at the Worlds assured him a place among the greats. Indeed,he is the greatest of all time.
Bestowing the title of greatest of all time (GOAT) has always been a tricky matter for pundits. Dont compare persons from different eras,some say. If that is done,Bolt comes up short on carats. He is still just as good as the athletes at the Worlds,not better,and is three gold medals short of being the most successful track athlete at the Olympics (both Lewis and Paavo Nurmi have nine). But if statistics were everything,Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,with 38,387 career points in the NBA,would be the undisputed GOAT of basketball. Michael Jordan who?
Just to put Bolts achievements in perspective,when he took to running as a teenager on the streets of Trelawny in 1998,the 9.8-second barrier had been breached only once in a 100m race. By a drug-fuelled Canadian. By the time he turned pro,at the turn of the century,the record had stagnated in the high 9.7s. Bolt brought that down to the low 9.7s,then pierced through the 9.6s into the impossible 9.5s. All that in the space of 15 months,between May 2008 and August 2009.
To choose the best there has ever been in a sport,sheer dominance must be a critical condition. Since 2008,Bolt has run in two Olympics and three Worlds,participating in his three pet events (100m,200m,4x100m) in each tournament. And out of the 15 gold on offer,he has claimed 14. The 15th,the 100m at the Daegu Worlds,was not lost to a better man on the track,but to himself. He was disqualified for jumping the gun. Now consider this: Out of those 14 gold,Bolt has shattered,or bettered his own,world records in half.
It is hard to restrict the Bolt phenomenon to just an era or a generation. In other sports,it is difficult to declare a GOAT even when you see one,for there remain questions that can never be answered: Could Roger Federer have been as dominant with a wooden racquet? Would Sachin Tendulkar have scored as many centuries on uncovered pitches and without protection? With Bolt and his chosen sport,it is far simpler. Running has always been man against self to the finish line,with nothing more than his legs for tools,as runner and author Christopher McDougall notes in Born to Run.
Running was mankinds first art,our original art of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees,we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self propulsion over wild terrain, writes McDougall. We were born to run. We were born because we run. Were all Running People.
If running is the most primal of art forms,the original sport,maybe there is a case for declaring Bolt not just the greatest runner,but also the greatest sportsman of all time. Usain St Leo Bolt,the GOAT of GOATs.