While many of us now remember how Gabby Douglas captivated us, how Michael Phelps made one last run, how Ryan Lochte became a star, or how Kevin Durant shot enough 3-pointers to inspire a rule change, in 20 years London 2012 will be remembered as the Olympics where Usain Bolt became a track and field legend.
The world records Usain Bolt currently owns in the 100 meter and 200 meter races are both nearly unbreakable (except by him). The fact that he has two such records is mind-boggling. Track and field is not a sport of jack-of-all-trades athletes. It is a sport of specialists, and it is rare for one athlete to be world class in two events.
Only once in modern track and field history has there been an athlete of this nature in track and field, and that was MJ in the '90s—Michael Johnson. Johnson's dominant 43.18 in the 400 meter is a record that no one has come close to in nearly 20 years, while his 19.32 200 meters time was unapproachable until Usain Bolt came along.
The fact that someone came along to beat MJ after only 16 years is almost surprising. Some experts believed his 200 meter record to be unbreakable; but you cannot foresee someone like Usain Bolt coming along. In all likelihood, both of Usain Bolt's records will last for decades to come, and in every Olympics we will talk about him as we watch another gold medalist fall short of his accomplishments.
Many casual fans will spout medal counts of Olympic swimmers in awe. It happens now with Michael Phelps like it used to with Mark Spitz. Less likely, you might see a crazy person compare Kareem Abdul Jabar's career points scored with Wayne Gretzky's career points scored, before someone informs that person that you can score a lot more points in basketball than you can in hockey.
At some point many decades ago, it was decided that every swimming event imaginable deserves a medal, while each core track event only gets one gold medal. If you think Ryan Lochte's five medals at London 2012 mean something next to Usain Bolt's three, then the Olympics have clearly passed you by.
An athlete who often gets compared to Usain Bolt is Michael Phelps. This comparison should not be happening. Here's a brief summary of Phelps' Olympic dominance.
2000: Lost events
2004: Lost events
2008: Won all five individual events, 3 at the 200, 1 at the 100, 1 at the 400
2012: Lost events
Phelps was only truly dominant at one Olympics (2008) and only at one distance (200 meters). His only medal at the 100 meter distance came in the butterfly by a controversial hundredth of a second. Even his records at the 200 meter distance—his best distance—are breakable and probably will be broken in the next 10 years.
While Phelps gets into heated competitions with contemporaries and wins a mixture of gold, silver, and bronze, Usain Bolt wins nothing but gold while looking back at the comparatively slow competition.
While Phelps is retiring after London 2012, and we are unlikely to see Gabby Douglas again in 2016, Usain Bolt—at age 25—is going to get faster. He is younger than track athletes usually are when they peak, and he has clearly pulled up during some of his faster 100 meter runs. That absurd and virtually unbreakable 9.58 is coming down. That 19.19—a full 0.13 faster than the "unbreakable" 19.32—is going to come down.
At the Olympics, Usain Bolt is a showman. But elsewhere he is a work horse. At some lesser event - perhaps the 2013 world championships, he is going to go full speed and make his world records even more unobtainable.
Just like we are now seeing a recession in the long jump, where gold medalists are unheralded as they pale in comparison to the old greats, when Usain Bolt someday retires, there will be a recession in sprinting, and his memory will grow more legendary in the minds of the public.
For a little perspective, when Asafa Powell beat Tim Montgomery's 100 meter world record of 9.78 four times ranging from 9.768 to 9.762, this was a big deal. Then when he smashed it to 9.74, it was game changing.
Usain Bolt ran a 9.58. And he's getting faster.
No athlete in the history of the Olympics has been world class at the 100, 200 and 400 at the same time.
Except perhaps Usain Bolt.
Unlike most pure sprinters of the past, Bolt has the body and the endurance to run the 400 meters. Will he choose to run the 400 meters in 2016? Nobody knows yet. However, his 45.28 400 meters time is Olympic worthy, and that was five years ago. With a small amount of focus in training, it is likely he could take home the gold in the quarter mile in 2016, and it appears to be something he has at least considered.
World record holder Michael Johnson boldly believes that Usain Bolt could not only win the gold but break his long-standing record.
If Bolt decides to go for it in 2016 and wins the gold in the 400 meters, he will transcend from what he is now—fastest man and legend of London 2012—to greatest athlete of all time.
Swimming is a sport that many countries do not care about, and America dominates it like no other sport (except perhaps basketball, which only offers two gold medals). At London 2012, Americans raked in an absurd 31 medals in swimming. While Michael Phelps won an impressive six, that becomes slightly less impressive when you realize Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin and Allison Schmitt each won five. Over the years, Americans have brought home more than 500 swimming medals. It's our sport.
But track and field is truly global, like no other sport except perhaps soccer. Every country sends its fastest and most athletically gifted men and women, and the level of competition is always high. In London 2012, we saw track and field golds go to Jamaica, Grenada, Kenya, Algeria, Britain, Uganda, China, Russia, Kazakhstan and many others.
Because of its huge international presence, track and field is a sport that is rarely dominated. It is a sport where hundredths of seconds separate the best in the world. At least until now.
In 2020, when you are watching three men lean at the 100 meters finish line to try to eek out that last thousandth of a second, remember what it was like to watch Usain Bolt turn his head, watch his competition behind him and cruise across the finish line.