An hour before going on the air for the 2008 Reebok Grand Prix, Ato Boldon heard from a trusted Jamaican. Listen, the friend said, I was in the stadium when Usain Bolt ran a 100m at a small meet in Kingston four weeks earlier and clocked 9.76 seconds, then the second-fastest time in history in his third career 100m race.
“You guys are going to get a shock tonight,” Boldon remembered the friend saying.
About 45 minutes before midnight, after nearly two hours of rainstorm delays, Bolt broke the 100m world record for the first time on Randalls Island between Manhattan and Queens. 9.72 seconds.
Boldon, calling the meet for CBS, would not have expected it at dawn that Saturday. Bolt was already promising and decorated, but in the 200m as a world junior champion in 2002 and senior world silver medalist in 2007. Bolt’s coach preferred the 400m as his complementary event.
All that made Boldon skeptical of the 9.76 from the Jamaica Invitational on May 3.
“Wait a minute, his [third] race was a 9.76? Eh, I don’t know about that,” Boldon recalled Thursday. “Maybe the wind gauge blew over [with too much tailwind for legal times], or the track was short.”
Neither, Boldon’s friend assured him. Bolt broke the 100m world record for the first of three times that night — followed by his 9.69 two months later at the Beijing Olympics and 9.58 at the 2009 World Championships.
“It’s not like now where if a world record gets broken, everyone sees it immediately,” Boldon said. “So this was his coming out in just track and field. But to the world, he didn’t arrive until Beijing.”
Of the reported 5,000 or 6,000 people at Icahn Stadium that evening, a man who sticks out is Carter Blackburn. He sat with Boldon and called a track and field meet for the first time in his TV career (Boldon said Blackburn hasn’t called a meet since, either).
“Carter Blackburn foreshadowed it,” Boldon said. “When the gun goes off, he says, ‘Finally, a clean start. Will it be historic?’ Despite the fact it was his very first track and field meet, he actually had an inkling that something special was about 80 meters away.”
The meet was billed as a head-to-head between Bolt and Tyson Gay, the American who swept the 100m, 200m and 4x100m at the 2007 Worlds to become the Olympic sprint favorite. Bolt might not have even been regarded as the fastest Jamaican. Asafa Powell, who would pass by Bolt’s house on the way to train every day, had the world record of 9.74 seconds.
Bolt’s first world record may go down as his most unique. It’s the only one that he didn’t set at an Olympics or world championships. It came in the world’s biggest city, but not in the spotlight — 11:15 at night after rain drove away spectators. Except for the boisterous Jamaicans.
“They were there to see Bolt,” Boldon said. “While waiting for the race, there was a singing contest. It almost become a Jamaican national rally. By the time the race went off, they were ready to explode.”
Miss Jamaica even interviewed sprinters while wearing her sash, according to The New York Times. A post-meet reggae concert had been scheduled, according to The Associated Press.
Bolt’s excitement was evident, too, after reportedly spending the entire day sleeping peacefully in his hotel room. He pointed toward the stands as he crossed the finish line and didn’t stop for another 200 meters around the curve.
“I wasn’t really looking for the world record,” Bolt said that night, “but it was there for the taking. I knew after 50 meters the race was over.”
Bolt’s coach, Glen Mills, was hesitant for Bolt to race the 100m at the Olympics, worried that it could affect his chances of winning the 200m. But Bolt had earned the chance to try, starting with a deal between he and Mills, by breaking the Jamaican 200m record in 2007.
“The Olympics are the big thing for me,” Bolt said in New York. “It doesn’t matter if I have the world record, if I don’t have the Olympic medal”
Boldon predicted after that race that “there was no question” Bolt would break into the 9.6s.
“We look like junior high kids out there compared to the man,” U.S. sprinter Doc Patton said that night, according to Sports Illustrated. “What an impressive athlete. Twenty-one years old, six-foot-five. Sky’s the limit, man.”
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