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Out of this world

Special to The Times

BEIJING -- To those who know track and field, to those who have watched Usain Bolt grow up, the most significant step he made wasn’t what has happened in the last three months, when the Jamaican jumped from sprinting’s elite into a class of his own.

The key stride came when Bolt went from child prodigy and junior level phenom to a consistently successful runner at the senior world level, where he has competed since 2004.

“I knew when he was 15 years old that if he was still in athletics six years later, he would be something really, really great,” said Jamaican Coach Steven Francis. “But that was a big ‘if.’

“There are many, many people like him who as teenagers do very well, but never make the transition. It’s a difficult road, and a lot of times, especially Jamaicans, they fall short as seniors.”

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One day before his 22nd birthday, Bolt redefined sprinting forever when he won Wednesday night’s 200-meter Olympic final in 19.30 seconds at the Bird’s Nest, breaking Michael Johnson’s seemingly untouchable, 12-year-old world record of 19.32.

Four days earlier, Bolt had won the 100-meter gold in a world record of 9.69 seconds, breaking the mark of 9.72 he set this summer.

He is the ninth man to win the Olympic sprint double but the first to do it with world records in both. And he is the only man to hold both records as measured to hundredths of a second, which became possible 40 years ago with fully automatic timing.

“He is a fantastic, extra-human athlete,” said Francis, whose athletes include Asafa Powell, the former sprint world-record holder, and Melaine Walker, who won the 400-meter hurdles in an Olympic-record 52.64 barely a minute after Bolt completed his victory lap. “He can do things that people can only dream of.”

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In a sport beset for two decades by doping violations involving sprinters, the idea of a superhuman immediately raises suspicions. Bolt cannot escape them, not after his 100-meter personal best has improved in one season from 10.03 to 9.69 and his 200 best from 19.75 to 19.30.

The Olympic times would have been even more startling had Bolt run hard the whole way in the 100 and not run into a 2-mph headwind in the 200, his eighth race in six days.

“You’re going to have those questions no matter what in the climate of our sport,” said Renaldo Nehemiah, former hurdles world-record holder, now an agent.

“He’s something you’ve never seen before, he’s a freak, but he did it at 14, he did it at 17. What’s great is when you see someone who was doing what no one at their age can do, and then they replicate it at this level, so it makes sense.”

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Bolt won the 200 by the largest margin in Olympic history, before and after the disqualifications for lane infringement that knocked out the men who crossed the line second and third, Churandy Martina of Netherlands Antilles (19.82) and Wallace Spearmon of the U.S. (19.85).

Spearmon learned he had lost the bronze medal when he was near the end of a lap of honor with an American flag. He rolled up the flag and handed it to teammate Shawn Crawford (19.96), who felt he hadn’t deserved Spearmon’s bronze medal.

Crawford, 2004 Olympic champion in the 200, wound up with the silver an hour later after a jury of appeals upheld a U.S. protest that Martina also had stepped out of his lane. That moved Walter Dix (19.98) from fifth to bronze.

None of that medal muddle seemed important after a race in which the other medalists were afterthoughts and also-rans to Bolt.

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“I knew the record was in danger,” Crawford said. “It was a matter of whether he still had his legs in this eighth round. Was he mentally fatigued? Physically fatigued? Was his body going to hold up?”

Unlike the 100, where he had lost time playing to the crowd in the last 20 meters, Bolt not only drove to the finish of the 200 but leaned at the line. That total commitment owed to a passion for the longer sprint that began when he was 15 and became the youngest junior world champion ever in the 200.

“I had the 100 world record already, so all I wanted to do was win,” Bolt said. “When I saw I could get the world record in the 200, I told myself I was going to leave everything on the track, and I did just that.”

At a news conference five hours before the race, Johnson said it was unlikely Bolt would break his record Wednesday. He questioned whether Bolt had done enough endurance training in a season where his emphasis switched to the 100, an event he had run only once at the senior level before 2008.

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Bolt said the endurance came from base training at 400 meters, the event his coach, Glen Mills, always wanted him to run. Bolt begged for a chance at the 100 instead because the training load was much lighter.

“I had background training for endurance, and I did the 100 for speed, so it was a good combination,” Bolt said. “Last year I did a lot of technique work with my coaches.

“I think this all came together tonight, and I just blew my mind and blew the world’s mind.”

U.S. Olympic sprint coach Harvey Glance, a 400-meter relay gold medalist in 1976, said people were not giving Bolt enough credit for being technically sound because his height, 6 feet 5, defies sprinting norms. Spearmon (6-2) was the only other 200 finalist over 6 feet.

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“Once he gets going, he’s smooth,” Glance said. “It isn’t like he’s working hard, which a big man is supposed to do.”

The prevailing wisdom is a tall sprinter will be slow getting out of the blocks and, in a race that starts on a curve like the 200, be inclined to have the first few steps go all over the place until his long legs straighten out. Bolt had neither problem.

“He is clicking on all cylinders,” Glance said.

Bolt’s size clearly is an advantage because of his stride length, which has combined with his fast stride frequency to make a seemingly unbeatable sprinter.

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“He has all the innate gifts you want in an average-size person, but he just happens to be tall,” Nehemiah said. “Right now, that makes him an impossible force to contend with.”

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Hersh covers Olympic sports for The Times and the Chicago Tribune.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Lightning strikes

Usain Bolt became the ninth man in history to win the 100-meter and 200-meter races at the same Olympics. He is the first to set world records in both events.

100 METERS

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Bolt lowered his record of 9.72 seconds at the Beijing Games on Saturday when he ran a 9.69.

200 METERS

Bolt broke Michael Johnson’s once-thought untouchable record of 19.32 seconds by running a 19.30 on Wednesday.

400 METERS

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The world record is held by Michael Johnson with a time of 43.18 seconds. Bolt does not compete in the 400.

Los Angeles Times

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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TRACK AND FIELD

Men’s 200

*--* Medal winners G: Usain Bolt (Jamaica) Time: 19.30 S: Shawn Crawford (United States) Time: 19.96 B: Walter Dix (United States) Time: 19.98 *--*

TRACK AND FIELD

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Women’s

400 hurdles

*--* Medal winners G: Melaine Walker (Jamaica) Time: 52.64 S: Sheena Tosta Johnson (United States) Time: 53.70 B: Tasha Danvers (Britain) Time: 53.84 *--*

TRACK AND FIELD

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Women’s

Hammer

*--* Medal winners G: Aksana Miankova (Belarus) Distance: 250-5 S: Yipsi Moreno (Cuba) Distance: 246-8 B: Zhang Wenxiu (China) Distance: 243-10 *--*


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