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Monday, August 17, 2009


Yesterday Usain Bolt broke his own world record in the 100 meter dash by an amazing eleven hundredths of a second, an astounding margin for the shortest Olympic event. It's been apparent since last summer in Beijing, when he started to pound his chest and showboat thirty meters from the finish and still ran a 9.69, that he had that kind of time in him. But to actually see it was still astonishing.

I have to wonder if some black people winced at his behavior before and after his races. He seems the personification of the old-timey stereotype of the happy go lucky black, an image many blacks have moved away from.

Bolt is constantly clowning around, even right before the start of his most important races. His most well known pose is that of an archer about to release an arrow. Yesterday he also covered his face with his hand and would then remove it to reveal a different expression each time. He playfully made himself up in the mirror of the camera lens, smoothing back his eyebrows and making sure his hair was in place. He made a gesture with his arm that seemed meant to evoke a plane taking off, as if that was what he was about to do. (The movements he made with his body after the starter's pistol went off came as close as any human being has ever come to actually approximating a jet.)

Bolt's playfulness in Beijing was a departure from the way most sprinters behaved previously. In the past most had felt obliged to play the role of badasses, posturing and flexing their muscles beforehand, game faces on all the way. But now that Bolt is the hottest thing in sprinting, the other sprinters have started to imitate him. The majority of finalists yesterday felt obliged to do some sort of mugging for the camera as their names were announced. The new version of cool seems to necessitate showing that you don't take the big event too seriously, and that you can even make a joke out of it.

When you spawn a host of imitators, you know you've really arrived.

About the only sprinter who didn't clown around beforehand was Tyson Gay, who looked as if he was about to jump out of his skin at any second. Gay had been touted beforehand as Bolt's biggest competition. He certainly didn't disgrace himself, becoming the second fastest performer in history with a 9.71.

After the race, Bolt was the picture of uninhibited joy. He ran fast for another 100 meters or so, then took two victory laps, hugging various people in the stands as well as a mascot on the field. At one point he ran into teammates Asafa Powell, the bronze medalist, and recruited him to show the latest dance steps from Jamaica.

Personally, I find Bolt very appealing. I love his lightheartedness and lack of pretension. I admire -- and envy -- his ability to stay relaxed at the biggest events. His joy after his victories certainly seems spontaneous and genuine, in contrast to the obviously scripted celebrations of other athletes I've seen. I'm not sure I've ever seen another person express such pure, unalloyed happiness after a race. (By contrast, Michael Phelps often seems to have an angry, aggressive demeanor after his races. Many Americans seem to be imbued with that "We're Number One!" mentality, which can come across harsh and gloating, especially to the rest of the world.) The closest I've ever seen Bolt come to fist-pumping was in the 100 in Beijing, when he started pounding his chest 30 meters before the finish. (But even that was at least spontaneous; there's no way his coach would have ever countenanced a mid-race victory celebration.)

I even think Bolt is clean (not on steroids.)

I only wish I could enjoy life that much.

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