Flashes of Brilliance: 100 meters in the blink of an eye

For two weeks this summer, people all across this world will watch people walk as fast as they can without running. We will care about which horse has been taught to dance the best. We will not only view a group of women synchronously playing with hula hoops, but we will opine on which group should receive the highest score from a group of judges using a grading rubric beyond our comprehension. We will root passionately for those that wear our country’s colors, take national credit for their successes and remember them forever for their unexpected failures. We know that these athletes have spent a lifetime honing their skills, studying their craft, forgoing traditional education and childhood activities in order to be the very best in the world. This lifetime of training comes down to one 10 second race, one vault, one dive. One slow start or imperfect landing wipes away years of a training regimen we can’t possibly understand. This summer, the world’s greatest sporting event returns.

I was sitting with my little brother in front of the TV. We had stayed up late in order to watch Michael Phelps win yet another gold medal in Beijing. In this event, the 100-meter butterfly, he was the heavy favorite, but he got off to a bad start and trailed the entire race. That is not an exaggeration; Milorad Cavic, the Serbian in the lane next to Phelps, did not trail Phelps at any point of the race, yet still managed to lose the gold medal to him. What seems like a paradox was no issue for Michael Phelps at those Olympics. My brother and I screamed in disbelief when Phelps was declared the winner. I don’t care about swimming, but I remember that moment vividly.

That same day, Usain Bolt was to run in the 100-meter finals, the race that crowns the fastest man in the world. I liked Bolt, and hoped that he would win, because he had a vibrant personality and a body type that distinguished him from his shorter, more muscular competitors. The 100 meters is unforgiving; the final is usually decided by hundredths of a second. If you blink at the right time, you might miss all eight finalists cross the finish line. A lifetime of preparation, of genetic predispositions to sprinting, of tireless practice — the margin is next to nothing. On that night, Bolt looked to both sides with 30 meters to go and saw that no one was next to him. He slowed down. He celebrated. He still won. He still set the World Record. I don’t care about track and field, but I remember watching that with joy and wonder.

The Olympics are nationalistic to a silly degree. They are corrupt, and wildly expensive for the host city and country. I still love them passionately, if only for these moments and memories that I hold close years later, for sports I don’t normally watch, for athletes who capitalized on their fleeting chance at enduring greatness.