The intriguing question has been around for a very long time. Last Sunday Jamaican Usain Bolt touched (according to an official biomechanical analysis) a peak speed of 44.172 km an hour at 65.03 metres in the 100 metres sprint at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin. Is this supremely gifted athlete the fastest human who ever walked the earth? Is he for real? Some believe Bolt’s 9.58 seconds might be 20 years ahead of scientific predictions in taking the biggest slice — a whopping 0.11s — off the 100m record since the advent of automatic timing in 1968. This has naturally led to questions and speculations about the ‘ultimate’ man can run. “I think it will stop at 9.4 but you never know,” said Bolt after his magical sprint. A 1998 study forecast an eventual men’s record of 9.37s; another done in July 2009 pegged it at 9.51s. If Bolt was guilty of relaxing through the last 20 metres of the Olympics 100m final in Beijing where he clocked 9.69s — forcing biomechanics experts to review their studies and projections — he ran through the line in Berlin.

It is now well established that Bolt’s deceleration rate is much lower than that of his peers. This helps him maintain his speed past 60m or 70m when sprinters normally start slowing down. Then there is the giant stride that gives him a decisive edge over shorter rivals. All sprinters know that height is a handicap at the start but Bolt has started defying even this bit of conventional wisdom. In Berlin, his 6’5” frame took only 0.146s to react to the gun in comparison with the 0.144s for Tyson Gay, the American who finished second, and 0.134s for his team-mate Asafa Powell, who took the bronze. Bolt took just 33 strides to hit the finish for the new world record against the 41 he needed in Beijing. His name might have been unfamiliar to a majority of sports fans before he first made the headlines in New York last year with a world record 9.72s. But the exciting potential was evident as early as 2002 when Bolt took the 200 metres gold in the world junior championships and then the silver in the 2007 world championships. Not until 2008 did this unspoilt genius make a serious foray into the 100 metres. Since then, he has turned sprinting theory on its head, winning an Olympic treble, all in world record times. He evokes awe, admiration, and envy from former greats and rivals alike. Lightning Bolt now owns three of the top four 100m timings in history, but he doesn’t know how fast he can run. The world perhaps is yet to see the best from this Jamaican grocer’s son who will turn 23 on August 21.