Fueled by hundreds of chicken nuggets, and with a shoelace dangling precariously off his left shoe, Usain Bolt strutted into history during the 100-meter final at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games as only he could. Glancing briefly to his left, then his right, he saw no competitor in sight. Only cameras dotted his view—and Bolt knew just how to play to them.
Dropping his arms and pounding his chest with 20 meters to go, Bolt crossed the finish line with arms wide open. The entire sequence took just 9.69 seconds.
No one in the world had ever done it faster. Bolt's competition didn't fall short. Three runners set personal bests, and one topped his country's best-ever time. This wasn't a story of failure—it was one of exceptionalism.
The world fell in love in an instant, Bolt's exuberance and joy a welcome antidote to the increasingly dour world of track and field, one beset then as now with bad news and performance-enhancing-drug busts. It's the same passion that's made him a transcendent star in a sport that is normally forgotten in the four years between each Olympic Games.
Not everyone, of course, was happy. They never are when true greatness emerges, especially in track's signature event. A certain swagger goes with being the fastest man in the world. But Bolt, some thought, took it too far. It was one thing to create a signature celebration after the event—but to do it during the race was a bit much for traditionalists.
"I think he should show more respect for his competitors and shake hands," International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge told the press. "Give a tap on the shoulder to the other ones immediately after the finish and not make gestures like the one he made in the 100 meters."
In the results-focused world of track and field, all anyone could think about was what might have been. Had Bolt run hard through the finish, instead of pausing mid-race to begin his personal carnival, how much could he have shaved off his time? Already unthinkably fast, he had cheated the world of a glimpse at the human potential for speed.
"Good TV, bad sportsmanship," former Olympic medalist Ato Boldon said on NBC, one voice in a chorus of critics. "A little bit too much of 'You can't run with me.'"
Bolt, the smile seemingly etched on his face, was blissfully unconcerned with the hubbub.
"Ah, I was having fun," Bolt told the Independent. "That's just me. I like to have fun, just stay relaxed."
Bolt's performance, S.L. Price wrote in Sports Illustrated, was a perfect distillation of the qualities that make him who he is. To his countrymen, it was a familiar dichotomy:
He was all out there in Beijing: posing and clowning, chatting up volunteers. Free. It wasn't just his winning that captivated Jamaicans; it was the utter Jamaicanness of his performance. Bolt broke the world record in the 100 while celebrating. He dominated and partied at the same time, combining the national traits of aggression and ease as few athletes ever have.
Bolt's win transcended mere athletics in sprinting-mad Jamaica. Brazil has soccer; America has football. In Jamaica, the sport of choice is the 100-meter dash—and Bolt was its new king.
"What a mighty people we are!" prime minister Bruce Golding proclaimed in a speech to the nation celebrating Bolt's fleet feet, national pride beaming. It was a celebration that almost didn't happen.
A little more than a year before he broke the world record at the 2008 Games, Bolt wasn't even allowed to run the race that would make him famous. He had shown remarkable promise at 200 meters, per Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden. The 400 meters, too, was a possibility, if Bolt would be willing to put in the work.
But the 100-meter distance Bolt craved simply wasn't made for a sprinter of his 6'5" frame.
And, the truth is, he shouldn't be able to do what he does. Before he burst onto the scene, it was thought to be impossible by leading scientists in the field.
Sprinting, as Edward McLelland explained at Slate, was for smaller, compact athletes with the power to propel themselves out of the gate and the athleticism to control their bodies at great speeds as the air pounded away at both balance and momentum:
That Journal of Sports Science & Medicine study, which may now need to be rewritten, found that world champion sprinters ranged between 5-foot-9 at the low end to 6-foot-3 at the absolute max. (Unlike distance runners, sprinters do need to be big and strong enough to generate explosive speed. That's why 5-foot-9 has traditionally been the minimum height, whereas the elite distance runner Haile Gebrselassie is a mere 5-foot-3.) That range covers all the recent gold medalists, from Maurice Greene to Linford Christie. But not Usain Bolt.
Moving Bolt's big body requires a lot more force than moving his correspondingly smaller competitors. This is where most larger sprinters fail—they can't get started fast enough to take advantage of their natural gifts later in the race.
"The angles you have to produce to produce rapid turnover and power to come out of the blocks is very difficult for athletes with longer limbs," former 200-meter world-record holder Michael Johnson told Olympic.org, explaining, in theory, why Bolt should have failed.
But Bolt is different. He proves science wrong, a living rebuttal to a decades-old hypothesis. He can employ enough force using more than 30 muscles in both legs, double the amount of force a normal person applies when they run, to propel his body in ways that should be impossible.
Although not a great starter, he's good enough to stay competitive early in the race's first 30 meters—and then dominate the race's final moments. According to National Science Foundation researchers (via Science360.gov), it takes the average sprinter 44 steps to complete 100 meters. With his exceptional size and loping stride, Bolt requires only 41.
"His stride length is enormous," MIT professor Anette Hosoi told NBC. "Every time he takes a step he covers a tremendous amount of ground."
Once turned loose in the 100 meters, Bolt's potential was obvious. Less than a year after he started training for speed, he set the world record in May 2008. At the Olympics, he topped himself. World records in the 200 meters and the 4x100-meter relay would soon follow—and Bolt was just getting started.
Eight years later, little had changed. While beating American Justin Gatlin in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games required him to run the entire 100-meter race at a full clip, the joy in victory was undiminished. Bolt is still the best in the world—and still loving every second of it.