Track and field is a sport that typically only receives wide-range attention every four years at the Summer Olympics, along with swimming and gymnastics. However, ten years ago at the World Championships in Berlin, Germany turned out to be the rare time where sports observers universally were engrossed in the sport in a non-Olympic year.
Usain Bolt, the Jamaican track star that looked and felt literally unbeatable in any sprint competition he entered in, was the athlete that bedazzled the audience with two stunning showings at the 2009 World Championships that still reverberate to this day.
In a span of five days, the then 22-year-old Bolt went on to rewrite history again in the 100- and 200-meter competitions. The previous year at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Bolt showed the world just how absurdly fast he was by breaking the 100-meter world record in a time of 9.69 seconds and the 200-meter world record in 19.30 seconds. That 2008 version of Bolt reached the pinnacle that no sprinter in history, given the same advantages in equipment, training, dieting and technology, could beat.
If 2008 Bolt was in peak form, the 2009 Bolt was otherworldly and untouchable. In the 100-meter final in Berlin, Bolt ran literally a perfect race from start to finish by breaking his own mark in a still-world record time of 9.58 seconds, while also dusting a field of high-quality sprinters such as American Tyson Gay (who set the U.S. record at 9.69) and countrymate Asafa Powell.
Standing at 6 feet 5 inches, if there’s one minor weakness that Bolt had throughout his career, it was his start out of the blocks but he was able to make up for it because of his long strides that would cover more ground that the rest of his foes. In the final, his start was superb and when he hit the 50-60 meter mark in the race, the crowd noise reached a crescendo in anticipation of an superhuman finish. In the last 40 meters, his stride left every human being in the stadium and around the world in utter astonishment.
It was an avant-garde moment for track and field, led by maybe the most colorful and charismatic character in all of sports at the time.
Five days later in the 200-meter final (his strongest event), Bolt was at it again as he broke his own world record in 19.19 seconds in a flawlessly executed masterpiece, completely lapping the opposition. Watching Bolt accelerate and put on the burners at the half end of that race was like watching a NASCAR driver finishing strong down the home stretch to win the Daytona 500.
That night, Bolt had the speed, precision and total command of his ability.
The exhibit was totally mesmerizing and made clear to me that Usain Bolt was the most electrifying athlete I had ever seen in my lifetime.
The chasm between Bolt and everybody else was evident heading into the World Championships, but after the event, it was even more clear that this guy was the best sprinter ever. Bolt even landed on the August 31, 2009 cover of Sports Illustrated after the championships, with writer Tim Layden assessing the 100- and 200-meter world champion’s brilliant achievement.
“Within five days last week at the world track and field championships in Berlin — a deeply significant site in the sport's history — Bolt crushed his own year-old world records while winning both the 100 and 200 meters. The numbers speak in track's most eloquent tongue,” said Layden. “Yet there is also a more complex story. Bolt has shaken the historical moorings of his sport, dragging it to a distant, unimaginable place. Past sprint records are diminished, future marks seemingly unreachable for others. A decade's worth of championship gold medals appear inaccessible to anyone but Bolt — provided he stays healthy and motivated. He carries the sport on his shoulders.”
When evaluating the best single event performance of his career, so many come to mind. The 2008 Beijing Olympics, 2012 London Olympics, 2013 World Championships in Moscow, 2015 World Championships in Beijing and 2016 Rio Olympics must all be in consideration. Yet the 2009 World Championships in Berlin were home to his greatest performance. In my view, it was the most emphatic, convincing and dominant individual performance ever by a track and field athlete – male or female – at a worldwide event.
Yes, and that’s including some of the sport's most iconic moments. Jim Thorpe’s unrivaled decathlon-pentathlon double at the 1912 Summer Olympics. Jesse Owens’ four gold medal haul in front of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Summer Olympics. Bob Beamon’s gold medal and world record triumph at the 1968 Summer Olympics. Carl Lewis’ all-around showpiece at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Florence Griffith Joyner’s comprehensive 1988 Summer Olympics showing. And Michael Johnson’s eye-catching gold medal 200-400 meters feat at the 1996 Summer Olympics.
With the Track and Field World Championships set to kick off in late September in Doha and new sprinters emerging like Christian Coleman, Noah Lyles and Sydney McLaughlin, along with familiar faces such Justin Gatlin and Allyson Felix still in the fold, track and field is in a good place without the sport's main attraction these past 15 years.
Yet, looking back a decade ago, it’s difficult to see anyone ever flipping the sport upside down the way Usain Bolt did in Berlin.