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Usain Bolt’s victory in the 100 metres has not only confirmed his status as an Olympic legend, but demonstrated that there has been a fundamental shift in our perception of athletic worth.

In the early days of the Olympics, the race that mattered was the marathon. Indeed, in 1908, the way the British reacted to Dorando Pietri endowed the race with a special magic. The Italian, who crossed the line first but was disqualified for receiving help from stewards, evoked such sympathy that he was given a special cup by Queen Alexandra and a street near White City was named after him.

The world then was fascinated by the ability of the human body to endure physical pain and suffering during a sporting contest. The men’s marathon may still conclude the Olympics and there can be no doubting the impact the London marathon has had in this country. Nor will Bolt, exceptional athlete as he is, have a London street named after him. However his success, and the billing of yesterday’s race as the biggest event of the Olympics, shows that what moves us now is to discover who is the fastest man on earth rather than the one who can bear pain the longest.

      

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