Owen Slot - The Times
In the first of a four-part series celebrating the most magical moments of the sporting year through the eyes of those who were there, we return to the Bird’s Nest Stadium. Dateline: August 16, Beijing
Lord Coe: I’d not missed a major track-and-field championship for 20 years, but I can’t remember so looking forward to a head-to-head in a final like Usain Bolt-Asafa Powell. Everyone was in their seats early; the only close similarity was the 20 minutes waiting for Cathy Freeman’s 400metres final in Sydney, when the stadium was almost hushed by its own nervousness. That was peculiar to Australia; this was clearly going to be a very Jamaican occasion. I was sitting there with my two boys, one of whom is a real Powell fan. I said: “This has got Bolt written all over it.”
Don Anderson, chef de mission of the Jamaica team: Usain had made a habit, pretty much every day in Beijing, of hanging out in my office in the Olympic village where there was a sitting area, where he could chat to people as they went by, where he could listen to music and go online. I saw him several times that day. He was very composed, especially when I compare him to the slightly lost boy I’d known at the Athens Olympics four years earlier. His major concern that day, genuinely, was that he’d get his chicken nuggets.
Darren Campbell, Sydney Olympics 200metres silver medal-winner: I was in the 5 Live commentary position with Steve Backley and Allison Curbishley. We knew something special was about to happen, you could tell; Bolt had been taking it so easy in the rounds and the semi-final. I felt that, unless he pulled a hamstring, there was no way he wasn’t going to win. It was just a question of how quick he could go; he’d shown me enough to believe that 9.60 was possible.
Sir Matthew Pinsent: I’d had a long day up at the rowing and was back in a BBC edit suite in the international broadcasting centre when someone suggested going to see the 100metres. In previous Games, because I’ve always been competing, I’d never seen the 100metres live, only watched it on TV with a gold medal freshly round my neck, feeling pretty pleased with myself and rather ambivalent about who won. This time I found myself sitting in the media tribune next to Adrian Chiles, six rows back from the track, having a couple of beers and thinking: “This is going to be good.”
Donovan Bailey, 100metres Olympic record-holder from 1996: I was at trackside, doing commentary. My thoughts were, one, that Bolt was just about to smash my Olympic record, and two, that he was the right guy, a good kid and a breath of fresh air for track and field.
Campbell: Remember, this was the event of the Olympic Games. When I ran in the 100 metres final in the Sydney Olympics, it was something I’d dreamt of ever since I was a kid and it was pretty much the only time in my career that the pressure got to me. What convinced me about Bolt was that he was so relaxed, he wasn’t scared of anything. He was just having fun.
Anderson: I was sitting near the finish line, a perfect view. When I saw him before the start, doing all his stuff, so confident, there was no question in my mind that he would win and break the world record. My concern was for Asafa. He knew he couldn’t win here and I’d seen him disintegrate in the final in 2004. Would he hold form here and finish second?
Bailey: Bolt was slightly behind at the start. The shorter guys are always going to get out quicker. But once he was into his acceleration phase, you knew it was not going to be close.
Campbell: He took one stride and I knew it was over. I was supposed to be commentating on the race but straight afterwards I couldn’t tell you who finished second and third. For nine seconds, I was mesmerised by one person.
Coe: When you have long legs like Bolt, you are not normally a good starter. But Bolt was actually quite quick out of the blocks - so he ripped up the manual there. Then, when he gets halfway though the race, he’s not going into turbo-charge; no, he rips up the manual there, too, because he starts waving at the crowd. I’ve not seen anything like it in my lifetime.
Pinsent: Watching it that close, from that perspective six rows back, you don’t initially get a perception of what is happening. It feels as if they are running straight at you. It is only when they got to right in front of us that you see he is a) in the lead, b) massive and c) slapping his chest! That moment when he started slapping his chest was the moment he became a global superstar and it was right in front of me. What a moment.
Anderson: His speed from around the 45-metre mark to 75 metres is unparalleled. But seeing him relaxing in the last ten metres, I didn’t think there’d been a world record. When I saw the time, I was astonished. I was so proud to know Usain, and proud to be a Jamaican.
Coe: I found myself laughing nervously at the end because I couldn’t quite believe what I’d seen. I was standing next to Daley Thompson and there are very few things that silence him, but he didn’t speak for five minutes.
Campbell: The moment he finished, we were all asking, “Could he have gone faster? What time would he have done if he had run through the line?” He left such a fascinating debate. It was like watching a movie and then waiting for the sequel. I want to see more. I can’t wait for part two in London 2012.
Bailey: I knew he was capable of running that fast, but not that fast looking so easy. People have to recognise and respect Bolt the way they do Tiger Woods. He is blessed with every tool possible to ply his trade.
Anderson: For Asafa, it was a repeat of Athens. To finish fifth in 9.95sec is a travesty of his ability. He didn’t step up to the plate. This is a big mental hurdle for him.
Campbell: Around me in the press box, the question immediately was, “Was it real? Can you believe it? Was he doped?” But as a sprinter, I know and understand what I saw. I have my fingers crossed that there will never be a problem with Bolt, but what I saw that night I believed to be legal.
Pinsent: The only thing I can compare it to was watching Michael Johnson run his 200metres world record in Atlanta [in 1996]. I remember then the whole stadium turning to each other and saying, “Did you see that?”, as though the person next to them had been asleep. This was the same. I turned to Adrian and said: “I can’t believe he slapped his chest and won so comfortably.”
Coe: Frankie Fredericks, the former Namibian sprinter, managed to get down to track level and he grabbed Bolt’s running vest off him, to put it in the Olympic museum in Lausanne. He brought it up to where we were sitting and we all wanted to be photographed with it: I did, my sons did, Daley did, too.
Anderson: I didn’t actually see Usain in person until the following day. He came into my office as normal, he had his headphones on as normal, you would never have known what had happened the night before. But what is mind- boggling is how he can improve. He had an OK start, but not the greatest. When he broke the world record with 9.72 in New York earlier in the season, his coach told me that he had spotted 26 mistakes. When Usain runs a perfect race, there’s no doubt he could do 9.50.
Coe: I saw Michael Johnson’s 200 metres in Atlanta and I saw Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat in their amazing sprint in those last 40 metres of the 10,000 metres in Sydney. Those are both up there as highlights for me, but I’d say that Bolt’s 100 metres is probably the most extraordinary thing I have seen - and, for a distance runner, that is a big admission.
Pinsent: There was not another moment in Beijing, for me, that came close. That day I had seen the British coxless four successfully defend the title that my crew had won four years before, and that had made me extremely proud. But in terms of blowing you away, that was the moment. By comparison, Michael Phelps had left me only mildly moved and intrigued; Bolt had me totally captivated.
Campbell: I am a Man United fan and what we did in the closing minutes in the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich - going from 1-0 down to 2-1 up - was unbelievable. For me, Bolt that night was the same kind of experience, something that really touched me, an occasion I will never forget.
Bailey: Bolt’s three golds in Beijing were the three greatest performances in any Olympic Games. I declare him the king of the Games. And yet, of all eight in that 100 metres final, he is the one with the greatest capacity to improve. It’s time to start feeling sorry for the little guys.
Frame and fortune gets perfect shot
When memories of the Beijing Olympics are consigned to the history books for future generations to dissect, no image will burn brighter or brasher than that of Usain Bolt, Marc Aspland writes. In a few giraffe-like strides one man pushed the boundaries of modern sport with a time of 9.69sec and did so with a beat of the chest, a hop and a skip and the odd wave to the crowd along the way.
It seemed that every one of the 1,100 accredited photographers in Beijing had taken up position long before the start of the event so I decided to squeeze myself along the top row of the huge photo-stand at the end of the straight offering a vantage point down all nine lanes.
There were thousands of cameras trained on every stride of the action but I had a good view looking down the middle lanes. For the start I used my Canon 400mm super-telephoto lens fitted with a 1.4 converter giving a focal length of approximately 580mm and I intended to use this until the runners hit the Olympic rings painted halfway along the straight, then I would swap as fast as I could to my Canon 70mm-200mm zoom lens, grab the focus and try and follow who I thought would be crossing the line first.
In no time the greyhounds were in their blocks and I remember seeing the runner in yellow and green sit up and cross himself. I heard the motor drive rattle as I waited for the start-gun. “Bang”, at nine frames a second the runners were already sprinting through the Olympic rings and it was the same yellow and green runner holding my concentration. Swap. 200mm, hit the auto-focus button and keep firing the shutter on the green and yellow chap and follow him and zoom out as he got closer.
From start to finish in 9.69sec, at nine frames a second - give or take a couple of lost moments swapping cameras but a few gained when the same fella in green and yellow ran by me celebrating, I recorded 72 frames of history being made.