We are best able to understand physical ability when we are given context. That’s why we struggle to comprehend the margins of human strength. For most people, there is no difference between lifting 100 and 500 pounds over one’s head, because most of us can’t lift either amount. We tend to appreciate strength more easily when it is mixed into more dynamic situations, like Russell Westbrook muscling his way through the lane or Stephen Strasburg throwing a baseball. It then makes sense that our love affair during the Olympics is with our most visually evident measure of physical ability: speed.
“Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive,” was coined almost a century ago. Since then, even Superman has fallen from his pedestal. But, those things that made him noteworthy are still fascinating to us. We will never see a human lift a building over his or her head, but when we watch a race, we can at once understand what an athlete is doing and see it as a work of metahuman fiction. This is what we love about swimmers Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps, though it is never more relatable than when it is on land, where no one has ever been faster than Usain Bolt.
Despite the enormity of his achievements, Bolt is done a disservice by his own resume. The Jamaican won Thursday’s 200-meter final in 19.78 seconds. Four years ago, he was the first man to win the 100 meters and the 200 meters in consecutive Olympics, and on Thursday, the first to win both races three times in a row. His eight gold medals (the other two are in the 4x100-meter relay) make him the most decorated sprinter of all time. But what really makes Bolt remarkable is the visual when he reaches his highest gear.
During Sunday night’s 100-meter final, Bolt didn’t get out of the blocks particularly quickly, but that wasn’t a problem; he usually doesn’t. About five seconds into the race, he completely exited his starting crouch and began to fully stride. A second later, he hit his top speed, almost 27 miles per hour, and moved past Justin Gatlin, the world’s second-fastest man, as if Gatlin was a child wearing ankle weights. In a race that is traditionally decided by inches, Bolt wins by feet. When he hits his moment of acceleration, it doesn’t just make the fastest sprinters in the world look slow, it makes them look like they’re obsolete.
As good as Bolt looks in the 100, the 200 is a race more suited to his running style — his slow start and high top gear. Sprinters can maintain their top speed for up to 30 seconds, but in the 100, it takes half of the race to even reach that pace. In the 200, Bolt hits his ideal cadence, again, after about five seconds, and then this happens:
The 200 meters is a bit of an optical illusion. The race opens on the track’s bend with competitors at staggered starting points. For half of the race, the leader is somewhat obscured, but as runners enter the straightaway, we see immediately see Bolt has been far ahead of his competition for seconds. Over the last 80 meters, all jokes aside, Bolt looks superhuman. Even 20 years ago, when Michael Johnson ran a time that many believed would stand forever, other members of the field, at times, kept pace. In the straightaway of the 200, Bolt looks like a train, inevitably chugging along past his tiring competition.
Andre De Grasse is very fast, make no mistake, but Thursday he finished second in 20.02 seconds — almost a quarter-second behind Bolt. Commentators, observing a replay of the race, remarked at the straightaway stretch that “five or six years ago, this gap would have been bigger.” There was never any doubt that he was going to win another gold medal.
This is the context for Bolt: He hasn’t raced against his competitors in years. Since the 2008 games, he’s been chasing himself, his own records, striving to improve in a world without peers.