Monday, August 25, 2008

Usain Bolt certainly provided plenty of fireworks and fun during the Olympics.

Three finals, three wins, three world records.

His 100-meter victory was so dominating he shut it down more than 20 meters from the finish line and posed for the photographers.

His 200-meter victory was more about breaking the 12-year-old record owned by the sport’s greatest 200-400 specialist, American Michael Johnson.

And the 400-meter relay also was thrilling, with the 22-year-old Jamaican taking the baton in the third leg and turning a close race into a rout.

With former 100-meter world record holder Asafa Powell as the anchor, the little Caribbean island of Jamaica, which has less than 1 percent of the population of the United States - circled the track in 37.10, shattering the world (1993) and Olympic (1992) records of 37.40 held by teams from the United States.

Naturally, track enthusiasts have been quick to quantify Bolt and his significance in track and field history.

Is he the greatest Olympic track athlete ever? Greatest Olympic sprinter? The greatest track and field athlete of all time? The greatest sprinter ever?

Such accolades are pretty lofty, taking into account the accomplishments of Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis and Al Oerter.

Owens won four golds in 1936 in the 100, 200, 4x100 relay and long jump. Lewis finished his illustrious career with nine Olympic golds and a silver, including four golds in 1984. He also won eight world championship golds and had a string of 65 consecutive wins in the long jump over 10 years. Oerter won four discus golds from 1956 and 1968.

“The greatest” is hard to define.

Is it based on the number of world records set? Is it based on the number of Olympic and world championship medals earned? Is it consecutive victories - i.e. domination of an event - like Edwin Moses, who between 1977 and 1987 won 107 consecutive finals (122 consecutive races) and set the world record in the 400-meter hurdles four times?

Or is it based on the athlete with the tattoo “G.O.A.T.” on his arm, signifying Greatest of All Time. OK, Maurice Greene, just teasing.

The amazing thing about Bolt is that he is so young. He could well become the greatest ever. He probably is nowhere near physical maturity, and he is nowhere near perfecting his skills. He likely has years of success ahead of him.

In the 100, Bolt ran 9.69 seconds upon turning 22. Asafa Powell ran his fastest time of 9.74 2 1/2 months shy of his 25th birthday, Tyson Gay (9.77) some five weeks shy of 26, Greene (9.79) three weeks shy of 25, Donovan Bailey (9.84) at 29, Lewis (9.86) at 30 and Britain’s Linford Christie (9.87) at 33.

In the 200, Michael Johnson ran his world record 19.32 one month shy of his 29th birthday and still ran the 12th fastest time ever (19.71) at age 32. And in the 400, Johnson blazed a personal best in 1999 with the current world record 43.18 less than a month before his 32nd birthday.

Bolt probably will crush that world record time soon, giving him unprecedented world marks in the 100, 200 and 400. From there, it’s hard to imagine what Bolt can do to the record books and medal counts over the next 10 years.

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