No one was ever going to beat Michael Johnson’s record. Not in my young lifetime anyway, maybe some distant day when I was old and grey, and athletics had changed out of all recognition.

Remember watching him set it at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996? That idiosyncratic style of his, back straight, carriage low, arms tucked, legs spinning so quick his gold spikes were like sparks from a Catherine wheel. He had a technique all of his own and maybe that explained why he was so fast. He finished in 19.32sec, three-tenths ahead of his own world record. The man in second place, Frankie Fredericks, ran faster than any one else ever had and he finished five metres back.

Over the next decade, no one got near. Tyson Gay ran it in 19.62, Xavier Carter in 19.63, Wallace Spearmon in 19.65. They were the second, third, and fourth quickest 200m sprints in history, and Johnson’s time was so far beyond them it was in another realm altogether. Three of the fastest sprinters in history, and they were pootling around in Olympus’s foothills. There was another wannabe contender, a 20-year-old lean streak from Jamaica called Usain Bolt – a lazy trainer, they said, but lightning quick in the juniors.

Bolt broke the 100m world record in May, two months before the Beijing Games. Then that Sunday night in Beijing, he did it again, in the Olympic final. You remember it, everyone does, how he started like a runaway armoire but gathered up so much track in the middle metres he stopped sprinting and spread his arms down wide, then turned to the crowd and slapped his hand against his chest as he came up to the finish line. There are lots of athletes who are so good they make winning look easy, very few so good they really find it so. He was one.

A big-screen replay shows Bolt’s world record time of 19.30sec at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

What is less well remembered now is just how upset some people got about it all, how the president of the International Olympic Committee president, Jacques Rogge, called him out for “disrespecting his competitors” and said it wasn’t “the way we perceive being a champion”.

Watching in the Bird’s Nest stadium, it wasn’t the swagger that bothered me but the split seconds it had cost him. We didn’t know, then, whether Bolt would run that fast again – Johnson never did – which meant he, and we, might never find out what he was capable of, where his limits, our human limits, really lay.

Until four days later, when we found out.

Bolt explained he had not been bothered about breaking the 100m world record, since it was already his. The 200m mark, Johnson’s impossible 19.32sec, was the one he wanted. Some day, maybe, Johnson said, but not now, not yet. Bolt did not have the speed endurance, he said, or the technique to handle running the curve, not at the levels he would need to beat that time. And who knew better? So far all he had done was trot through the heats and here he was clowning around on the start line without a care in the world.

Then the gun went. His start was smooth and fluid, by midway around the curve Bolt had made up the stagger on the four men outside him, by the end of the curve he was metres ahead of them, and now it was just him racing history, chasing Johnson’s ghost.

Bolt was out there on the very limits of possibility, pushing, pushing, pushing. This time he did not slow, there was no early celebration, he even threw his head and chest ahead in a dip finish. The clock stopped on 19.30sec. He had done it by two hundredths. I remember thinking, up in the stands: “So this is what it looks like when God tries for the line.”

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