Just after 10 o’clock last Saturday morning a diffident young man in an orange vest and grey cycle shorts positioned himself on the starting blocks in the Olympic Stadium. His name was Timi Garstang from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, a series of Pacific microdots, population 68,000, compared with the 80,000 in the stadium for his race. “I thought it would be more like 20 people,” said Garstang.
He was in the preliminary round of the 100m, the beginning of the quest. Usain Bolt and the like would arrive rounds later. But the planet’s most obscure countries are given special indulgence to take their place in the comity of nations and send a handful of athletes, whether or not they have reached the formal qualifying time.
Which Timi Garstang had not. Indeed, he performed no better than a reasonably gifted teenager on a school sports day. He trailed in last, a second and a quarter behind Tuvalu’s representative, in 12.81 seconds. Everything was a little foreign to him. Back home, he runs on an unmown field, and they have to mark out 100m with a tape measure. Now he knows what’s involved: “I’d like to give it another try. I know I can do better than this.” I wasn’t sure whether to feel sorry for him, or jealous. He had no doubt: “It was a good race, a great feeling.”
Some events at the Olympic Games – the triple jump, the keirin, the dressage, the sailing – are arcane and complex. Nothing could be simpler than the 100m. Nothing could be more innate. Hard to imagine there is anywhere on earth that kids do not instinctively race against each other to see who is fastest (though one does wonder a little about the Marshall Islands). Nowhere is this more intense than in Jamaica.
The island has fewer than three million people, but the tradition of sprinting is a long one, dating back at least to Herb McKenley, who lost the 1952 Olympic title in a photo-finish. Ben Johnson, Jamaican-born but competing for Canada, lost the 1988 title in a doping control lab. In 1992 and 1996, Linford Christie and Donovan Bailey, both Jamaican-born migrants, did win gold for Britain and Canada. And then in 2008 appeared Usain Bolt.
One West Indian professor has theorised that Jamaicans have high levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, “making them determined and aggressive”. Another says that a relatively homogenous gene pool plays a part in producing champions. Some say that role models breed imitators. Some put it down to the way of life: Bolt had a tough upbringing in the hills of Trelawny. His father put Usain’s success down to the health-giving properties of the Trelawny yams. Bolt himself once said that, if you hear a loud noise in crime-ridden Kingston, you better start running.
Historically, the 100m was not the centrepiece of the Olympics. Before sophisticated slo-mo, it was too quick to be a satisfying spectator event. Then from the 1980s onwards, the lists of champions became peppered with proven or suspected drug-takers. As a sport, athletics was in the doldrums, attracting little interest between Olympics. And then came Bolt.
And he did come from the blue. Hardly anyone had heard the name when he started running fast, aged 21, in early 2008. He was supposed to be a 200m man. And he was an improbable contender even for that: unusually tall; a slow starter, which was not unconnected; so disorganised that he ran the Olympic final in Beijing with a shoelace undone; reputedly a lazy trainer and good-time Charlie. That day he prepared on chicken nuggets rather than yams.
He won, and broke the world record with 9.69 seconds, having slowed down to celebrate before crossing the line. He didn’t stop celebrating, either. Bolt had overturned the theory that it was frequency not length of stride that mattered. Here was a figure capable of saving his sport, not only with his brilliance but with his flamboyance.
Yet the mood that night was short of unquestioning admiration. There was muttering along the lines of “too good to be true”. “Wait for the drugs tests,” some athletics experts whispered. But no word came. The doubters backed off, and Bolt’s stature only grew. At the world championships in Berlin a year later, he clipped his own world record to 9.58; mathematicians began to suggest that he could easily do 9.4.
Then came the setbacks: at the 2011 world championships he was disqualified for a false start, handing the title to his training partner Yohan Blake, three years younger, the man Bolt called The Beast. Some theorised that Bolt had been pressurised into breaking early by fear of his new rival. In 2012, Blake would beat him at the Jamaican Olympic trials. The London 100m was going to be the ultimate sizzler: the Champ v the Kid. It was already the hottest ticket of the Games: more than two million people had applied, said the organisers, a number even further beyond Timi Garstang’s ken.
A couple of hours after Garstang, the principals came out: seven heats, top three to go into the semi-finals, plus the three fastest losers. The times were fast: Justin Gatlin, the 2004 winner, back after serving two separate drug bans, one successfully contested, was the first to break 10 seconds, his reaction suggesting total self-justification. The new young American Ryan Bailey was even faster in Heat 3.
Bolt was next. He appeared on the track like Voldemort, in a dark tracksuit. There was a theatricality even about the way he stripped off, to reveal the bright yellow vest and those extraordinary limbs, which seem to be attached to his body only loosely and could be unclipped in repose. Bolt did not break 10 seconds. He won insolently, toying with the opposition like a daddy not quite letting the kids beat him.
Blake, short but all shoulders and muscles, did the fastest time in Heat 6. Only one of the major players failed to get through: Kim Collins did not turn up. Collins, a 36-year-old grown-up and world champion in the pre-Bolt era, had been sent home by the St Kitts and Nevis team because he had gone to stay with his wife and kids at a hotel. Sporting officials: tough on false starts, tough on conjugal relations, keen on third chances for drug-users.
In this event, the three semi-finals come on the night of the finals. The stadium could not have been fuller on the Sunday evening than it was on Saturday morning, but now the atmosphere crackled. And yet, somehow, one felt the final was over the moment the semis had been run. Gatlin, Bolt and Blake were the winners. One of them looked in command of the situation, running within himself. Now we knew, barring accidents. He knew. And we knew he knew.
Eight men came out for the final just after 9.30pm: three Jamaicans, three Americans, a Trinidadian, Richard Thompson, and Churandy Martina from Curaçao, running for Holland. Not a white, brown or yellow man in sight.
The announcer ran through the field: Thompson on the inside, lithe and hyperactive; then Asafa Powell, the third Jamaican and former world record-holder but perpetual bit-player in Olympic finals. Tyson Gay of the US, second-oldest man in the field and second-fastest man in history, gave a fairly perfunctory wave; Blake, in contrast, thrust his hands forwards and made a face to indicate that he was, as Bolt said, The Beast. Gatlin was obviously contemptuous of such nonsense, but Bolt, to his right, went into a complex series of mimes to perplex but delight the crowd. Bailey looked cool, pleased to be there. Martina just waggled his finger.
It is hard to describe a 100m race in detail, and there is not much need. Bolt was away slowly, but once he unwound to his full height and stride, it was over. When the line came, he just kept running until the photographers headed him off, and he kissed the ground and made his Bolt-gesture, arms outstretched. His time was 9.63, beating his Olympic but not world record. Blake was 0.12 of a second behind, a long 0.12 of a second. Gatlin was third. Everyone in the field had beaten 10 seconds, except poor Powell, staring into space at the finish, having gone in the groin.
It was almost midnight before the medallists appeared in the airless basement where the media conferences take place. Had you not seen the race, you would have known the result as they walked in. Bolt swaggered like a triumphalist gang leader. If Blake was ever a threat, he wasn’t now: he was consigliere, mini-me. Gatlin sat there like a captive, chivalrous when asked to speak, but curling his lip in contempt when Bolt and Blake gigglingly started to explain their private jokes and gestures.
Justin: it’s a new world where the champ (we want to believe) is not the man with the best chemist, but the one with the most talent and also the best shtick, the Muhammad Ali of the 21stcentury. “You want to be a legend?” someone asked. “This is what I want to do,” said Bolt. “That is my goal right now. Then I will make a new goal.”
I don’t suppose anyone except me thought for a moment about Timi Garstang.