Great athletes inspire joy and wonder with their tremendous performances. That is certainly true of Usain Bolt's breathtaking world record time in the 100 meter dash finals of the Beijing Olympics, but his sprint to glory inevitably leads to a different kind of wonder, as in "I wonder how in the world he was able to do that?" Bolt lowered his own world record by .03 seconds despite taking what amounted to an unprecedented "victory lap" toward the end of his sprint. If he had not mugged for the crowd he could very well have posted a 9.55 or even 9.5 flat but even while slowing down he still blew away the field with a 9.69.
Bolt looked like a man among boys or a superman among elite athletes but it is sad to say that the first thing I thought of when I watched Bolt explode past the best sprinters in the world was the 1988 Olympic 100 meter dash finals, when Ben Johnson authored a similarly breathtaking and improbable performance. Johnson clocked in at 9.79, a number that would not be officially matched again for 11 years. Of course, we soon learned that Johnson's rocket-like burst was propelled by illegal rocket fuel--namely the steroid stanozolol--and thus Johnson's world record was stripped from the books and the gold medal was awarded to Carl Lewis. It is important to remember that even though Johnson was caught by a drug test many of the recent drug cheaters routinely passed drug tests until their wrongful actions were discovered by other means; perhaps the most notable person in that category is Marion Jones, who for years stridently denied that she cheated.
I have no concrete reason to suspect Bolt of doing anything wrong but what he did is literally hard to believe for many reasons, not the least of which being that this is not even his best event and he has been running the 100 for little more than one year. He also overcame the seventh slowest start time of the eight finalists and an untied left shoelace. Bolt has an atypical build for a sprinter, towering over his competitors at a lanky 6-5. Is it really possible through normal means to become the best 100 meter sprinter of all-time in a little over a year when you don't even have the prototypical 100 meter sprinter's body? Next to the other runners Bolt looked like Shaquille O'Neal racing those jockeys in the TV commercial.
There is a larger issue here than even just this one race. The Associated Press published a chart detailing the history of the 100 meter world record. Donald Lippincott, the first name on the chart, ran the 100 in 10.6 seconds in 1912. That mark stood for nine years before being lowered to 10.4 by Charles Paddock, who also held the record for nine years until Percy Williams ran a 10.3. The all-time great Jesse Owens ran a 10.2 six years later in 1936 and he held the record for 20 years before Willie Williams ran a 10.1. Four years later Armin Hary ran a 10.0. Then we enter the era in which the times were recorded to the hundredths of a second and in 1968 Jim Hines broke the 10 second barrier with a 9.99. Later that year Hines ran a 9.95. That mark stood for 15 years until Calvin Smith ran a 9.93. Five years later, Carl Lewis bettered that with a 9.92. In 1991, Leroy Burrell ran a 9.90 and later that year Lewis ran a 9.86. It took Burrell three years to inch the record to 9.85 and another two years for Donovan Bailey to run a 9.84. Three years later, Maurice Greene ran a 9.79, the biggest increase in the record since times were recorded in three digits. Greene's standard stood for six years before Asafa Powell ran a 9.77 in 2005. Since that time, the record has been tied or broken six times--once by Justin Gatlin, three times by Powell and twice by Bolt--and the number has moved by .08 seconds, an increase that historically has taken a lot longer than three years. Keep in mind that if Bolt had not showboated then the record would have moved by well more than one second since Powell first clocked 9.77.
Logically, one would assume that there is a physical limit to how fast a man can run 100 meters and one would also assume that the closer we get to reaching that limit the harder it would be for sprinters to break the world record. As indicated above, the first world record stood for nine years, the second one stood for nine years as well and the third one lasted six years until it was broken by Owens, who is one of the greatest athletes of all-time. Owens' mark lasted 20 years. The advent of electronic scoring made it possible to more precisely record the numbers, else we would not have been able to distinguish between Hines' 9.99 and Burrell's 9.0--and it still took 23 years to move the record those .99 seconds. After that, when in theory it should be more difficult to lower the record, it has seemingly become easier to break the 100 meter record: It only took eight years to go from Burrell's 9.0 to Greene's 9.79 and then just nine years to reach Bolt's stunning 9.69.
Maybe the current sprinters are simply reaping the benefits of better training programs, better equipment and better diet but the rapid progression of the 100 meter record certainly seems odd and is eerily reminiscent of how MLB sluggers suddenly started regularly cranking out 50-plus home run seasons after decades in which that number was only reached by a select few players.
To borrow from the X-Files' Fox Mulder, I want to believe that Bolt's record is as genuine as the unabashed joy that Bolt showed even before the race was over, but with seemingly more track stars sprinting through the record book than subway passengers going through the turnstiles in New York it would be naive to not at least wonder what is really going on in track and field. Sadly, that speculation also applies to the Olympic swimming pool, where world records are more commonplace this year than Happy Meals at McDonald's. Is that because of the new space age suits, a swimming pool that is considered to be conducive to fast speeds or something else? Frankly, I don't know but forgive me if I am a little skeptical when I watch a race and see four or five competitors zooming past that green world record line as if it had been set by a swimmer wearing cement shoes.