I cribbed this post’s title from Kenny Moore’s 1987 Sports Illustrated article recounting the astonishing moment at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics when Bob Beamon obliterated the long jump record and Lee Evans broke the 400 meter world record by becoming the first man to go below 44 seconds, clocking a gritty 43.86. These two gargantuan feats of strength happened literally minutes apart, as if they were cosmically underwritten, and Moore’s scene-setting line still gives me chills: “Now we are moved to reflect upon what natural wonders these men were and how things came together for them in Mexico City on Oct. 18, 1968, at 3:46 in the afternoon....” Both those records eventually fell, as all records must, yet I never stopped thinking about them, wishing I could have been there to witness their rendering, wondering what it felt like for those who did.
Although Day 3 of track & field competition at the Rio Olympics last Sunday night was headlined by the men’s 100 meter dash, the men’s 400 meter final was scheduled immediately before it. On paper, the latter race appeared epic, stacked with 2008 Gold Medalist Lashawn Merritt, 2012 Gold Medalist Kirani James and 2015 World Champion Wayde Van Niekerk. Still, those who claimed afterwards they sensed a potential world record strike me as dubious. After all, once Evans delivered his 43.86 in 1968, only two men would hold the record again. Butch Reynolds passed Evans twenty years later and the immortal Michael Johnson passed Reynolds eleven years that, blazing a 43.18 at the turn of the century, a time so entrenched that I took it for granted even as I assumed its permanence.
Because of a semi-rough semi-final, Van Niekerk had been cast into dreaded lane 8, which, because of staggered lanes, put him in front of everyone else, meaning he would be running blind, unable to see his competitors and modulate this performance accordingly. That seemed a difficult impediment to overcome, not just for setting a world record but for winning at all. Then again, Evans operated out of Lane 6 in 1968, unable to track his primary competitor, fellow American Larry James, in Lane 2. Evans went on instinct. And I can’t help but wonder if not knowing where Merritt and James were actually gave Van Niekerk an unwitting edge. Because when he turned for home, he kept pushing in a way I’ve never seen at that distance, as if he assumed Merritt and James were right there with him, even though they weren’t. Normally the last 100 meters of a 400 are an exercise in agony as sprinters struggle rather than sprint and fight to hold their form to the finish. Even if Van Niekerk was in agony, he never struggled. He kept sprinting. I could not believe, and still kind of can’t, what I was seeing.
There was a moment when I tried to balance where Van Niekerk was in relation to the finish line with the time on the clock. It looked like he was going to finish below 43 seconds. But that couldn’t be possible, I thought. I must not be seeing where the finish line really is, I decided. But I was seeing it, and then he was across it, and the time that flashed, 43.03, felt to track fans what it must feel like for an astronomer to see some grand celestial object pop up where it is not supposed to be. I was not alive when Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute mile, obviously, and Van Niekerk coming within a whisper of sub-43 is my closest equivalent. I screamed so loud my girlfriend came out of the other room because she thought I’d been watching Usain Bolt, who she wanted to watch with me, and she’d missed it. Bolt surpassing Michael Johnson’s 200 meter record in 2008 was transcendent, but when Bolt toed the line I was in the mindset that he could do it. I didn’t even consider Van Niekerk breaking the record when he set sail, let alone go that low. I thought he was going up in a standard 747 and the next thing I knew he’d landed on the moon.
Usain Bolt had already taken his trips to the moon, back in 2008 and 2009, when he broke world records in spectacular fashion, and then broke the ones he’d set. Now he was pitched to go past the bounds of the known track universe, to become the first person to win three Gold Medals to in the 100 meter dash, to go back-to-back-to-back, a triad of heavyweight titles, like Muhammad Ali’s, The Greatest, the closest pure athletic comparison I can think of for Bolt, who was on the precipice of being The Greatest too. And that’s where he was last Sunday night, on the precipice, as he kneeled in the blocks and took that trademark last look down the track, and that unmistakable heavenly hush came over the Olympic Stadium crowd, my heart was beating to burst, and I both wanted the race to begin more than anything and to stay in that few seconds, so alive and unknown, forever.
At the gun, Bolt started slow. He always starts slow, given his unlikely-for-a-sprinter 6’5 frame, but he looked even a tad heavier than usual, and he was several runners behind his chief nemesis, Justin Gatlin. Bolt doesn’t win races in the beginning, of course, he wins them in the end, eventually bringing the full power of his powerful frame to bear. Even so, in the flash of that slow start I saw a whole race unfold in my mind where he failed to uncoil and unleash, and so my body was flooded with a hot flash of panic so immense I frankly might have collapsed if he had not so quickly done what he always does – that is, meet everyone else in the race on their terms up to 60 meters and then……dictate his terms and leave the mere mortals in the dust. Back-to-back-to-back. He went where no runner had gone before, which was where I was so desperately wanted him to go, and I was so overcome with joy that he had, well, I don’t mind saying it since you probably could’ve guessed it – I wept. I don’t wish to declare Usain Bolt as “The Greatest Athlete of All Time” because that’s arbitrary, subject to everyone’s own criteria, but he is the greatest athlete I have ever seen, and I will leave it there.
I’d imagined Bolt winning that race at least since the World Championships a year ago, maybe even back to the Worlds in 2013, maybe even all the way back to the London Olympics, maybe further still, when he ran that 9.92 in a semi-final in Beijing without even really running at all. But I never imagined it in conjunction with Van Niekerk’s 400. And because everything has to be delineated in the year 2016, some were quick to declare Van Nierk’s achievement as more impressive than Bolt’s, which is just boring and reductive. All I know is that when I think of Bolt going back-to-back-to-back, I’ll think of Van Niekerk going 43.03. And when I think of Van Niekerk going 43.03, I’ll think of Bolt going back-to-back-to-back. I will think of an Olympic night unlike any I can recall. And their respective records will one day fall, because that is the way the world turns, but even when they do, the night will live on, forever and ever, and I will hold onto it for at least that long, that mystical night when two giants walked on the earth.