Editor's note: The Associated Press is asking members to vote on their choice for Athlete of the Decade. Their selection will be announced Dec. 16. Ahead of that pick, the AP is profiling some of the leading candidates.
It's not that Usain Bolt breaks records.
It's the records he breaks and the way he breaks them.
In the short span of two years, Bolt has done a decade's worth of restructuring to track and field's record book. He has made himself a candidate for The Associated Press' Athlete of the Decade by making people rethink what's possible in one of the most basic measures of athleticism: how fast a human can get from Point A to Point B.
"His whole life as an athlete has been punctuated by greatness," says Bolt's coach, Glen Mills, who prefers to let others determine Bolt's place in history but knows exactly what he's working with. "Usain Bolt — he's a phenomenal, phenomenal athlete."
In the 100-meter dash at the Beijing Olympics, Bolt broke the record despite hot-dogging it across the line for the final 30 meters. A year later, as if to prove he could play the leading role with a greater sense of gravitas, he broke it again at world championships with a full-on effort — and by .11 seconds, the biggest margin since electronic timing was introduced in the 1970s.
In the Olympic 200-meter dash, he broke a record most people thought was unbreakable — a mark that had not even been threatened in 12 years. A year later, Bolt broke that record again, also by .11.
The current marks are 9.59 seconds in the 100 and 19.19 seconds in the 200. Not that anyone should get too comfortable with those, the way they did with Michael Johnson's 19.32 in the 200 or the 9.7-somethings in the 100 that took nearly a decade to wipe out.
The free-spirited 23-year-old from Trelawny, Jamaica, is simply different from those who came before him. He is puncturing long-held beliefs in track — most notably, that records must be broken in small increments over long periods of time and he's too tall to excel as a sprinter.
"He's a freak of nature, to be 6-foot-5-inches tall, and be a world-class sprinter," Johnson says. "He's not the first person to be 6-5. But he's the first anyone's seen who's that tall and coordinated at the front end of a race."
Bolt blasted holes in the long-held idea that a sprinter's winning formula in the 100 must come from creating momentum via downforce by driving their feet into the ground over the first 30 meters.
His goal in a 100 is merely to stay even through those critical 30 meters while he's gaining speed after unfurling his lanky frame from the blocks. Then, he uses his massive stride — he needs 41 steps, compared to 43 or 44 for his average opponent — to pull away.
And no longer does a runner have to win the 200 meters using an exacting game plan, conserving energy at the start and precisely conquering the turn to set up a fast finish. Bolt can win that race with a simple formula: By running as fast as he possibly can from the sound of the gun until his chest hits the tape, fatigue and strategy be damned.
"He can afford to do that and most athletes can't," Johnson says. "In all honesty, there is no tactic for Usain Bolt."
Which leads to an even bigger question: How does one determine the ultimate in sports greatness when the sports and their measurements are so vastly different?
Tiger Woods changed golf, and brought billions of dollars into his sport, even if his personal life is now in chaos.
Michael Phelps won 14 gold medals over the span of two Olympics and set bunches of world records.
Roger Federer is an unrelenting technician who changed the geometry of tennis and rewrote its record book.
Johnson and Edwin Moses both sit on a panel, sponsored by Laureus, that named Bolt the Sportsman of the Year for 2009. Federer won it the previous four years. They agree that Bolt should be considered for something like "performance of the decade," but needs more longevity to be called the Athlete of the Decade.
"What you have to do is measure him against a number of Olympians who've gone to multiple Olympics and won and continued that kind of performance," Moses said. "Particularly in the 100. Most guys can do it twice if they don't make mistakes or errors."
Bolt, meanwhile, recently conceded that he knows it will take time before everyone believes he set these records without the help of performance-enhancing drugs — a burden he must bear for participating in a sport with a sordid history of champions taking banned substances.
True believers will point not only to his amazing performances in 2008 and 2009, but also to his dominance as a junior in the early 2000s.
He continually broke junior records at age 15 and 16. In 2003, he ran the 200 in 20.25 seconds and the 400 meters in 45.30, beating the 200 record by more than half a second and the 400 record by nearly a second.
"These are marks that were never done in the history of the sport," Mills says. "He went through a transition phase, got hurt, missed a couple of years. But then he showed, when he's fully healthy, he continued from where he started at 15 years old."
Those who watch him speculate that, someday, Bolt might set his sights toward the 400, the distance that was supposed to complement his 200 before he turned toward the 100 because it was, quite simply, not as much work.
Moses, the two-time Olympic 400 hurdle champion, and Johnson, who holds the 10-year-old record at 43.18 in the 400, both think cracking the 43-second barrier is possible for Bolt.
"He has the opportunity, moving forward, to take his time, enjoy running the 100, 200 and drop into a 400 now and then," Moses says. "Even if he can only run 9.9 in the 100 when he decides to do that, you look at it and think, 'How many guys are there running 400 meters who can run that fast?'"
Which is what could make Bolt's next 10 years every bit as intriguing as the last 10.
Athlete of the Decade candidates
Lance Armstrong, Cycling
Tom Brady, Football
Roger Federer, Tennis
Michael Phelps, Swimming
Tiger Woods, Golf
Usain Bolt, Track
Annika Sorenstam, Golf
Serena Williams, Tennis
Kobe Bryant, Basketball
Barry Bonds, Baseball
Michael Schumacher, Motor Racing
Albert Pujols, Baseball
Lisa Leslie, Basketball
Shaquille ONeal, Basketball
Candace Parker, Basketball
Pamela Reed, Distance Running
Kenenisa Bekele, Track
Tim Duncan, Basketball
Lorena Ochoa, Golf
Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR
Alex Rodriguez, Baseball
Zinedine Zidane, Soccer
David Beckham, Soccer
Birgit Prinz, Soccer
Manny Pacquiao, Boxing