Big expectations

Special to The Times

BEIJING -- It sounds so simple.

The Big Man hambones the final 20 meters in Saturday’s Olympic 100-meter final and still covers the distance in 9.69 seconds, breaking the world record he set this season.

The Big Man began running the 100 only this year and has much more experience in -- and a greater passion for -- the 200.

So the Big Man will take down the record in the long sprint, the 19.32 that remains otherworldly 12 years after Michael Johnson set it in the 1996 Olympic final. No one has come within three-tenths of a second since.


After all, no less an expert than Johnson said two months ago, “I’m ready to kiss the record goodbye, if he keeps on doing what he has been doing.”

Jamaica’s Usain Bolt has done more than that since getting Johnson’s attention May 31 with his first 100 world record of 9.72 seconds. He has run the fifth-fastest time ever in the 200, a 19.67, and the three leading 200 times of this season.

“I used to think 19.32 was untouchable; now I think it is touchable,” said Debbie Ferguson McKenzie of the Bahamas, Olympic 200-meter bronze medalist in 2004.

“He has it in his legs,” said Marie-Jose Perec of France, Olympic 200-meter champion in 1996.


“I wouldn’t put anything past him right now,” said Wallace Spearmon, two-time world medalist in the 200 meters, who will be running against Bolt in tonight’s final.

And what did the Big Man think about this after running the fastest time, 20.09, of Tuesday’s semifinalists?

Bolt is just plain tired with one race left in the first major meet where he will have run eight sprint races, even if he has not pushed from start to finish in the first seven.

“I’m going out there and run my heart out and anything that comes, comes, but right now it’s kind of hard,” Bolt said. “I’ve been through four rounds of the 100 and three of the 200, so it’s kind of hard to go out there and get the record that’s been so far away.”


No man has set world records in both sprints at the Olympics. Not since Carl Lewis in 1984 has a man even won both.

“I’m definitely going out there hoping I can win both, but the 200 would mean a lot more to me,” Bolt said two weeks ago.

A year ago, when Bolt was running only the 200 at the world championships, he came through the curve with the lead but could not hold off Tyson Gay of the United States in the straightaway. Spearmon does not rule out a repeat of that scenario.

“He’s more fit, but he’s the same old Bolt,” Spearmon said. “Just because you can run the 100 doesn’t mean you can run the 200. Run too fast [at the start], and you’ll be tired at the turn.”


Johnson expressed amazement that Bolt was able to run a 19.75 last year “given that he’s not the most technically sound 200-meter runner.”

Bolt’s height, 6 feet, 5 inches, which makes him unusually tall for a sprinter, gives him a stride length that helps even when he tires, Spearmon said.

“When he’s gassed, he still covers more ground than a lot of short people,” Spearmon said.

The long strides would not be as effective were Bolt not able to combine them with a rapid turnover.


Johnson, at 6-1, had a considerably shorter stride but such quick turnover his feet spent little time on the track relative to other sprinters. Each additional fraction of a second of contact with the track slows the runner.

“He has the advantages of a small man and a big man,” Perec said, “with the explosiveness and stride frequency of a short runner and the stride length of a tall one.”

For Bolt to turn those qualities into a 200 world record will require a favorable wind (Johnson had a 1.7-mph tail wind) and some help from the four runners to his right in the staggered start. Bolt drew Lane 5 on a track where the runners are using Lanes 2-9.

Johnson was in Lane 3 for his record run, with silver medalist Frankie Fredericks (19.68) of Namibia in Lane 5 and bronze medalist Ato Boldon (19.80) of Trinidad & Tobago in Lane 6. Fredericks and Boldon also were 100 medalists in 1996, meaning they had front-end speed.


“You have to have somebody to go and catch coming off the first turn,” said Kim Collins of St. Kitts and Nevis. “He needs a good rabbit.”

It won’t be Collins, who will be in Lane 1. Spearmon, in Lane 9, is a notoriously slow starter. Two 100-meter finalists, fourth-place finisher Churandy Martina of the Netherlands Antilles and bronze medalist Walter Dix of the U.S., are in Lanes 7 and 8 for the 200.

To Collins, a Bolt victory is far from a foregone conclusion.

“You never know who is going to challenge the Big Man and make him break,” Collins said. “We’re all humans, and at some time we can break.”


Bolt seems more than that, a man headed for Olympic immortality at 21.

“He is a force of nature,” Perec said, “a one-in-a-million runner.”


Hersh covers the Olympics for The Times and Chicago Tribune.