- Luke Cyphers
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BEIJING -- Tyson Gay proved he was just a man. Usain Bolt seemed to be something more.
The Olympic 100-meter dash showed the limits and the possibilities of human performance, all in one evening. On a night when Gay failed to overcome the hard facts of medical science, the Jamaican Bolt nearly defied physics with his jaunty 9.69-second, world-record fun run.
Gay, the 2007 world champion and the third-fastest man in history, could not overcome the effects of a hamstring injury suffered July 5 at the U.S. Olympic trials, missing a long-awaited showdown with Bolt when he failed to qualify for the final. He finished fifth in the semifinal heat in a time of 10.05, well off his U.S. record 9.77 and wind-aided 9.68 efforts at the trials in late June.
Gay admitted on Saturday night that the three-week training hiatus to heal his left leg damaged his confidence.
"I've been battling that a lot," he said. "Man, I just ran 9.7, 9.6, 9.8, I'm in the best shape of my life. Then I come back [after the injury] and I'm running 10.3s in workouts."
The racing rust in the prelims, as he tightened up in the middle part of his semifinal heat, was just enough to lose a spot in the final.
"I did my best ... I just wasn't feeling that pop," Gay said, while snapping his fingers. "Even if I would have made the final, I still wouldn't have had that confidence."
Seeing Bolt wouldn't have helped.
"The guy is a freak of nature," said U.S. runner Darvis Patton, who beat Gay for the last spot in the final. "It's like he came out of a lab or something."
Bolt is something of a sprinting experiment, defying assumptions that tall men can't run the 100. Silver medalist Richard Thompson said Bolt shattered the stereotypes of sprinters as "short, strong and stocky." At 6-foot-5, 193 pounds, with rapid turnover and the ability to explode from the blocks, Bolt is the "beginning of something else again," Thompson said.
Such talk inevitably leads to speculation about doping. And there is a perception that Bolt came out of nowhere this season. That's not entirely true, or fair.
For years, the track world has expected much from Bolt, but his records were supposed to come in the 200 meters. He won the world junior championship in the event at 15 and a 2007 world championship silver medal. If anything, those who saw Bolt as a teenager wondered what took so long.
"He's been running very well since he was very young," Thompson said. "It was just a matter of time before he was running these times."
Bolt's countryman Asafa Powell, the former world-record holder who was supposed to challenge the phenom, finished fifth, another in a long line of disappointments at major meets. That didn't stop him from praising his teammate. "Usain is spectacular," Powell said. "You just have to look out for what's coming next for him."
Indeed, everybody in the stadium spent the evening speculating on how fast Bolt can go. Everyone except Bolt. "I don't know," he said.
He kept insisting he was only there to win, not to set a record.
After all, Bolt already owned the 100 record, running 9.72 in May against Gay in New York. In response, Gay put up his American record at the Olympic trials before injuring his hamstring in a 200 heat.
Gay said after the loss in May, he knew he'd need to run 9.6 to beat Bolt, and that he'd prepared himself mentally to do it at the trials. So Gay's absence in the final disappointed everybody, including Bolt.
"I've been telling Tyson all season that I wanted him to get better," Bolt said. "Because if you want to be the best, you've got to beat the best."
Now, there's no question who is the best.
"Toscanini said Marian Anderson's contralto voice comes along once a century," said Dr. Herb Elliott, a physician for the Jamaican Olympic team. "A guy like Usain Bolt comes along once a century."
Maybe Bolt's bib number, 2163, was a hint at how far into the future it will be before we see his like again. In any case, Jamaicans won't think about tomorrow for awhile. They'll just enjoy what one of their own did in the present.
"In Kingston," Elliott said, "business stopped today."
That's because in Beijing, human evolution was working overtime.
Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.