Which is Bolt’s best ever race?
The answer seems to be obvious. It has to be either his 9.58 s world record in the 100m or his 19.19 s world record in the 200m, both set in 2009 at the Berlin World Championships. Right?
Nope, not for me.
While those two are unquestionably his objectively best individual performances (especially the 9.58), they’re not my particular favourites.
Let’s go back to 2007. Bolt was 21 and was gradually beginning to make his mark in the Senior ranks. He was already a prodigious youngster and in 2004, at the tender age of 17, became the first junior to run the 200m in under 20 seconds, setting the world junior record with a time of 19.93 s. The 2007 World Championships in Osaka saw him line up in the 200m final against the then-dominant Tyson Gay of USA. Bolt pressured him in the home straight, but Gay held on well to take the gold in 19.76 s. Bolt took the silver in 19.91 s. It was a glimpse of things to come.
Bolt was a 200m specialist, but he managed to persuade his coach (the maestro Glen Mills) to run some more 100’s and on May 3rd of 2008, he shocked the sprinting world by setting a time of 9.76 s at the Jamaican Invitational meet in Kingston. He missed the World Record of his compatriot Asafa Powell by 0.02 s. But the result was surrounded by skepticism. The tailwind was blowing at 1.8 m/s (maximum legal wind is 2.0 m/s) and he did it against weak opposition. It might have been a one-off event, a freak occurrence of perfect conditions, never to be repeated. He had to prove himself against the best.
And on May 31st he did just that.
He lined up against Tyson Gay at a meeting in New York and he absolutely crushed him with a time of 9.72 s – a new WR. Gay was always known for his extremely strong finish and in the last 30 meters of the race in New York he was working very hard to gain some ground against Bolt, but he couldn’t, not even an inch. Bolt, on the other hand, didn’t really seem to be operating at his max.
Now everyone was confident that there was more to come and the rest is history. He exploded on to the world’s sporting scene at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing by running the easiest 9.69 s in the 100m you are ever likely to see and winning gold in the 200m with 19.30, breaking Michael Johnson’s epic mark of 19.32 s from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. His Jamaican quartet went on to win gold in the 4x100m relay with a time of 37.10 s – Bolt’s 3rd gold and 3rd world record at the same Olympics.
Next year at the 2009 Berlin World Championships he finally made an effort to run through the line in the 100m and fulfilling his potential (so to speak) by running a ludicrous time of 9.58 s. The 19.19 s in the 200m a couple of days later was just a bonus, but – pound for pound – it was just a tad less of an impressive result.
He went on to win more golds at the 2011, 2013 and 2015 World Championships and he cemented his legacy as being the most dominant sprinter in history by winning another trio of Olympic gold medals (100m, 200m, 4x100m) at the 2012 London Olympics. But he hasn’t improved on any of his individual records or personal bests since 2010; 2009 if we dismiss the non-standard 300m event.
Bolt still holds the world records in the 100m and 200m (I’m only focusing on individual events here; his Jamaican team still also holds the 4x100m WR at 36.84 s) and he holds the best legal world marks in non-standard events of 150m straight (14.35 s) and 300m (30.97 s).
All in all, if we look at his 100&200m individual performances, he has broken & improved the world record five times:
- (2008) 100m – 9.72 s ; previous record: (2007) Asafa Powell – 9.74 s
- (2008) 100m – 9.69 s
- (2008) 200m – 19.30 s ; previous record: (1996) Michael Johnson – 19.32 s
- (2009) 100m – 9.58 s
- (2009) 200m – 19.19 s
My favourite run of his is the 19.30 s from the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Let me explain.
With all of his other runs he was either breaking his own world record (numbers 2, 4, 5 in the list above) or he wasn’t REALLY trying (numbers 1, 2 in the above list). And with all of his other gold medal runs he was rarely tested to his max. The only two races that actually come to mind where he had to give it his all are:
- the 100m final at the 2012 London Olympics where he put all his effort into breaking free from the highest quality competition in history to run an Olympic record of 9.63 s and
- the 100m final at the 2015 Beijing World Championships where he was slightly out of form, so he barely edged Justin Gatlin by a margin of just 0.01 s (9.79 s to Gatlin’s 9.80 s).
So what is so special about his 200m from Beijing?
First of all, he wasn’t running against other sprinters that can’t match him when he’s at his best, and second of all, he wasn’t going against any of own his world records. Instead, he was going up against one of the very highest quality world records in all of athletics – Michael Johnson’s (USA) 19.32 s from the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
It has pretty much always been the case that the 200m world record was about double the time of the 100m record. It still holds true today and it was still true in 1996 when the records stood at 9.84 s and 19.66 s respectively (2 x 9.84 = 19.68).
But Johnson shocked the world by breaking his own record by 0.34 s. One of the commentators fittingly said that “… this man, surely, is not human.” Johnson went into uncharted territory and experts thought his record would stand for a very long time, maybe even generations. If you’re not familiar with athletics, we have something called Scoring Tables and they give a numerical value to every result in every discipline. It can be accurately used to compare results of similar disciplines and still fairly accurate at comparing results of vastly differing events such as 100m and 10km. Kind of like the unofficial pound-for-pound ranking from boxing. In short, 19.32 s in the 200m is worth 1329 points; the 100m equivalent of that is 9.65 s!
Johnson’s record stood the test of time for a respectable number of years. It was the absolute best result for 12 years and, before Bolt, the closest anyone has been able to get to his record was Xavier Carter of USA with 19.63 s in 2006. The 100m sprinters also had a lot of catching up to do; the best was “only” 9.74 s – not even close to 9.65 s.
In 2008 Bolt was toying around while running 9.69 s and his split times indicate that he would have run 9.62 s if he’d have run hard through the line. He was now in the Johnson-esque territory of insane results and everyone was holding their breath, waiting to see if he had the speed endurance to challenge Johnson’s mark.
Bolt was always open about stating that the 200m is his favourite event and that 100m is just a bonus. He sort of nonchalantly blew away the 100m world record, but Michael Johnson was always his idol and he respected him and his record by going absolutely all out in the 200m final in Beijing’s packed Bird’s Nest Stadium on the night of August 16, 2008.
It was a where-were-you-when-it-happened kind of moment and I still vividly remember jumping up from my couch in amazement when the clock on the TV stopped at 19.31 s and then dropped to an official 19.30 s a minute later.
Bolt surprised everyone by eclipsing one of the most special and respected records in the books. He has gone on to do bigger and better things since then, but we were never again so taken aback as we were in 2008 because we kind of expected him to improve, especially in the 100m.
He was working as hard as ever, puffing around the bend and gritting his teeth in the home straight, running against a -0.9 m/s headwind. It remains – in my mind – his crowning achievement and the best race of his career.