Five-ring Circus

Usain Bolt’s Best Races, Ranked

His only competition is himself.

Usain Bolt of Jamaica wins the men’s 100-meter final on Day 9 of the 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on Sunday in Rio de Janeiro.

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

On Sunday night in Rio de Janeiro, Usain Bolt won the 100-meter dash at the Olympics for the third time, chasing down Justin Gatlin to become the first man in history to win three gold medals in track’s showcase event. He was already the best ever going into the Rio Games. Now he needs a trophy case for his trophy cases. The 29-year-old Jamaican has seven Olympic gold medals and 11 more at the track and field world championships. (Six of those golds are in the 4-by-100-meter relay.) He has the three fastest times ever in the 100—a 9.58, a 9.63, and a 9.69 (tied with Tyson Gay and Yohan Blake)—and four of the six best in the 200 meters, including the world record of 19.19 seconds.

Bolt’s winning time on Sunday, 9.81 seconds, was not anywhere close to his best—he’s run faster 13 times in his career. “I expect better,” he told NBC’s Lewis Johnson after the race.

Given that Bolt’s only real competition is himself, how does his 100 meters in Rio compare with his other famous races? Since 2008, he’s appeared in 13 Olympic and world championship finals in the 100 and 200 meters. Here’s how they rank.

13. 2011 world championships, Daegu, South Korea, 100 meters, disqualified

The counterintuitive take here would be that Bolt’s disqualification by false start was more compelling in its way than some of his lesser world championship victories. That would be a bad take. The one thing all of the world’s greatest athletes have in common is that they do athletic stuff—run and jump and throw. After setting two absurd world records at the 2009 world championships, Bolt had not stepped on the world’s biggest stage for several years. When he finally got on the track, he false-started and got DQ’ed. The dude was milliseconds away from running the 9.5-second 100 that we’d waited two years to watch, and then he didn’t even get to run. This was bad.

12. 2013 world championships, Moscow, 200 meters, 19.66 seconds

Every race from here on is a Usain Bolt victory, which is crazy and hilarious and means we’re now left to decide which of his greatest triumphs was the least great. This was Bolt’s slowest-ever 200-meter victory in the world championships or Olympics. But watching Usain Bolt run the turn on the 200 meters is one of the great pleasures of this or any lifetime. The problem with this race is that Bolt gets so far ahead that he stops trying, but he doesn’t stop trying in a particularly entertaining way and doesn’t run a super-impressive time by his standards. (This is tied for the 21st-fastest 200-meter dash ever.) This is a great race. It’s Bolt’s least-thrilling major victory.

11. 2013 world championships, Moscow, 100 meters, 9.77 seconds

This was the Jamaican’s first big 100-meter win since 2009, on account of the previously discussed false-start business. Not a Bolt-ian time, and a totally expected result—his American “rival” Gatlin gets off to a fast start, Bolt chases him down. Little yawn-y.

10. 2015 world championships, Beijing, 100 meters, 9.79 seconds

Bolt had been a bit off in 2015 after returning from injury, so this was the great sprinter’s chance to prove he was still a great sprinter. He proved it—sort of. Gatlin actually would’ve won if he didn’t start flailing his arms wildly with a few meters to go. That loss of form was enough for Bolt to nip Gatlin at the end, 9.79 seconds to 9.80. This is the narrowest of Bolt’s victories, and he called it his hardest race. A suspenseful 100 meters, certainly, but neither man ran as fast as he was capable of running, and the outcome didn’t change history or alter our perception of either guy. The 2015 world championships proved that a diminished Usain Bolt was still better than everybody else. But a diminished Usain Bolt is not nearly as fun as a nondiminished Usain Bolt.

9. 2015 world championships, Beijing, 200 meters, 19.55 seconds

Watching Bolt run the 200 meters is better than watching Bolt run the 100 meters, because when Bolt runs the 200 meters, he runs 100 more meters than when he runs the 100 meters. This one wasn’t over when Bolt came out of the turn. Gatlin was there, challenging for the lead, ready to get dusted. And he got really, really dusted. Bolt zooms ahead so quickly that he has time to slow down and pound his chest before he crosses the finish line. Great, great race. Also, bonus points because Bolt got taken down while celebrating when a photographer lost control of his Segway.

8. 2011 world championships, Daegu, South Korea, 200 meters, 19.40

Finally, after two years plus one false start, Bolt got to run. The outcome was never in doubt. I mean, the outcome is never in doubt any time Bolt races, but this time it was really, truly never in doubt. Bolt makes up the stagger on eventual second-place finisher Walter Dix right away and could’ve done the backstroke down the backstretch if he wanted. Instead, he runs fairly hard, smokes the field by three-tenths of a second, and finishes with the sixth-best 200-meter time ever. Pretty, pretty good.

7. 2016 Olympics, Rio, 100 meters, 9.81 seconds

His slowest 100 meters in a major final, tied for his 14th-best time ever. Bolt said after the race that he expected better. All of us did—how could we not, given that he clowned his way to an easy 9.86 finish in the semifinals. For a second—OK, literally it was closer to about six seconds—it looked as if Bolt might not find his top-end speed. He needed to bust it in the last 50 meters to chase down Gatlin, who finished in 9.89 seconds. Again, the 34-year-old American—who, in 2004, won gold in the last pre-Bolt Olympic 100-meter final—didn’t perform his best when a great performance could’ve vanquished Bolt; Gatlin has run faster 21 different times. This ranks below every other Olympic victory in Bolt’s career, and above every world championship race but two. Given the Everest-high bar he’s set for himself since the 2008 Olympics, that feels about right.

6. 2012 Olympics, London, 200 meters, 19.32 seconds

The race that confirmed Bolt was the greatest ever, at least for anyone who wasn’t already certain of it. This win, the second of his two in London, gave the then-25-year-old the first-ever Olympic “double double”—back-to-back victories in the 100 and 200. Bolt’s countryman Yohan Blake, nicknamed “the Beast,” was in top form; he ran this 200 meters in 19.44 seconds, the fastest losing time in history. It took Bolt most of the backstretch to pull away. When he finally did, he looked to his left and raised a finger to his lips as he crossed the finish line. His time, 19.32 seconds, tied Michael Johnson’s famous mark—one Bolt had pushed himself to surpass four years earlier in Beijing. When the race was over, he grabbed a photographer’s camera and started snapping photos. They weren’t bad!

5. 2012 Olympics, London, 100 meters, 9.63 seconds

The aforementioned Blake beat Bolt twice at the 2012 Jamaican Olympic Trials, running a 9.75 in the 100 meters to knock off the defending Olympic champion. Bolt looked quite bad at the Jamaican trials—he had to crank in the last 20 meters to sneak past Asafa Powell and into second place. There were doubts, then, that Bolt was still the man he’d been in Beijing in 2008, or in Berlin in 2009.* He erased those doubts right out of the blocks, getting off to a much stronger start than usual and charging past Blake and Gatlin in the last half of the race. In the clear by a couple of meters, Bolt dipped his chest at the finish line, aiming for a historic time. He got it. Bolt ran these 100 meters in 9.63 seconds—the second-fastest sprint ever, bested only by himself.

4. 2009 world championships, Berlin, 200 meters, 19.19 seconds

Four days earlier, Bolt had smashed his own 100-meter record by 0.11 seconds. On Sept. 3, 2009, he smashed his own 200-meter record by … 0.11 seconds. Nobody pushed Bolt to this world record—second-place Alonso Edward of Panama finished 0.62 seconds behind, somewhere off the screen with whomever Katie Ledecky just beat in the 800-meter freestyle. Bolt was racing against the clock, and against himself, and he won. When the trackside scoreboard flashed 19.20 seconds, revised down moments later to 19.19, it felt as if evolution had sped up. This would be Bolt’s last world record in the 100 or 200. But in that instant, anything seemed possible. If he’d gotten back in the starting blocks and started sprinting again, I bet he would’ve covered 200 meters in 19 seconds flat. No athlete has ever had a better week than Usain Bolt had in Berlin in 2009.

3. 2009 world championships, Berlin, 100 meters, 9.58 seconds

The perfect race run by the perfect sprinter.

2. 2008 Olympics, Beijing, 200 meters, 19.30 seconds

The tell is the lean at the tape. Bolt had this one salted away after the turn, at which point they could’ve given golf carts to everyone else and it wouldn’t have mattered. But there was no mugging for the cameras this time, and at the finish line Bolt, with no other runner in sight, folded himself up and lunged. He wanted Michael Johnson’s world record of 19.32—recorded at the Atlanta Games in 1996 in what remains the damnedest thing one of your authors has ever watched—and when Bolt saw he’d gotten it, he roared and fell to the ground, overwhelmed for maybe the only time in his career. Watch Johnson’s 200 and then watch Bolt’s. Johnson compared himself to a go-kart speeding downhill, which nicely evokes his low-slung, stiff-backed gait. Bolt doesn’t scamper so much as churn. He is a runaway cement-mixer.

1. 2008 Olympics, Beijing, 100 meters, 9.69 seconds

Months later, a group of Norwegian physicists tried to determine just how fast Bolt would’ve run if he hadn’t spent the last 15 or so meters of the race vamping and pounding his chest and generally doing everything short of the electric slide. Working off three video feeds, the Norwegians came up with two estimates. The conservative one assumed Bolt would’ve matched the acceleration of runner-up Richard Thompson during the end of the race. In that scenario, Bolt would’ve run 9.61, give or take 0.04 seconds. The other estimate was premised on the assumption that Bolt would’ve maintained an acceleration faster than Thompson’s. Under these conditions, he would’ve put up a 9.55, give or take.

The study’s lead author cautioned against anyone taking these estimates too seriously. But that’s precisely what makes this Bolt’s greatest race. He gave us everything we could’ve wanted—he won handily and exuberantly and obliterated his own world record on the sport’s biggest stage—and he still left us, trackheads and eggheads alike, wondering what might’ve been. It was a race to savor in the subjunctive, too.

*Correction, Aug. 15, 2016: This post originally misidentified the location of Bolt’s 2008 race that laid expectations for the 2012 Olympics. It was in Beijing, not London. (Return.)

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