16 August 2008

Lightning Bolt


While I haven’t been watching particularly much of the Olympic Games, I had to make sure I caught the business end of the 100m running. I have always loved this event and the year or so building up to these Games was more interesting than most. In the last twelve months we saw Tyson Gay, from the USA, run 9.77 seconds and Jamaican Asafa Powell, who had already run 9.77 in 2005, went the distance in just 9.74 seconds.

So the stage was set for the pair to duke it out at the Olympics. Until Usain Bolt – another Jamaican – found form and the last couple of years went out of the window. Originally considered too lanky, at six feet and five inches, for the 100m, he specialised in 200m and 400m. When it became apparent that he was a decent sprinter, he shifted down to 100m and 200m. He made his first massive splash when he ran 9.76 on May 3rd this year; suddenly there was a new challenger.

Bolt became the instant favourite for gold in Beijing when, later that month, he ran the 100 metres in 9.72 seconds, in New York. Just as suddenly, Powell and Gay faded into the background as observers reminded themselves that Powell has a history of failing to fulfil potential at the biggest races, and that Gay hadn’t actually raced in a very long time.

So I missed the first and second rounds. Apparently all British runners progressed from the former, but Simeon Williamson and White Bloke didn’t make it to the semis. Don’t get me started on the ludicrousness of the British lifetime ban for Dwain Chambers, and the fact that White Bloke should never have made it as far as Beijing. However, the semi final did feature Tyrone Edgar, who Wikipedia tells me was initially impressive, logging the overall fastest time of the opening round. Contrast that with Simeon Williamson, who actually ran slower in the Olympics (10.42 and 10.32) than he did when qualifying a few weeks back in England (10.03).

Anyway, Edgar got to the semi-final but came second from last and was therefore eliminated. I know Chambers wouldn’t have had a chance at winning in Beijing but, given the fact that he ran the hundred in ten seconds flat while beating Williamson, he would likely have got into the final at least.

Which was more than Gay achieved. My sentimental favourite since he became the second fastest 200m runner in history (19.62, to the unparalleled Michael Johnson’s 19.32), he came up short in the 100. Logging times of 10.22 and 10.09 in the first two rounds – compared to Powell’s 10.16 and 10.02 and Bolt’s 10.20 and 9.92 – he seemed ever so slightly off the pace. That lack of recent race experience was taking its toll.

The first semi final featured Bolt, who sent a striking (no pun intended) message to all who would challenge as he finished first in 9.85 seconds without visibly trying. Notable also from this heat was Walter Dix, who came second with a time of 9.95.

The second semi final was the long-awaited battle between Powell and Gay; it was to be the first major disappointment. Noticeably tense, Tyson Gay left the Olympic 100m competition with a whimper, coming fifth when he crossed the finishing line after 10.05 seconds. This morning I had read that Gay was 13/1 to win gold, and I actually fancied putting some money on it. Good thing I didn’t. Powell won it, as expected, in 9.91 seconds. Heat Two notables were Richard Thompson (9.93) and Churandy Martina (9.94).

With one of the big three favourites out of the way, and Bolt getting the best semi-final time by a solid margin, talk was less of whether Powell would be able to win, but whether Bolt would break the world record. God of the 200m Michael Johnson predicted not just a world record, but a time of 9.69 seconds, which was pretty far-fetched.

At the start, there was a level of excitement surrounding the race that I was genuinely surprised by in this age jaded by seemingly ubiquitous steroid users. The two Jamaicans were separated at the starting line by Thompson and Dix, so my mind was tuned to focus on as wide a portion of centre-track as possible. This is exactly what I did when the race started, relatively equally.

Quickly, though, all attention focused on one man: Bolt was gaining advantage with each of his massive strides. With each passing half-second, Bolt moved from equal with the pack, through clear lead into the realm of piss-take.

Unable to quite believe what I was seeing, I began screaming at the screen: this was insane. Never before had I seen a race of such short distance led by such a margin. Bolt carefully inched his glance either side of him, checking where the rivals were.

Nowhere to be seen. So he turned his head to the right, to check where Powell, Dix and Thompson were.

Miles away. So with at least a tenth of the race remaining and probably closer to a fifth, Bolt actually eased up. Jubilant, he extended his arms in celebration; he slowed down; he crossed the line making comically high-kneed strides.

And he once more broke the record. Initially 9.68 seconds, this was rounded up to Johnson’s prediction of 9.69 (I think it was technically 9.688) – after slowing down and showboating.

Commentators before the race had hoped every finalist would beat the seconds. While that was not to be, this was the fastest final ever; as well as Bolt shattering his own record, the two slowest finishers turned in times of 10.01 and 10.03 (Marc Burns and Darvis Patton respectively).

Funnily enough, this magnificent performance seemed to intimidate all of Bolt’s opponents. Having assumed the winning time would be 9.7x seconds, I hoped and figured the silver (and probably bronze) medal times would be in the low 9.8x. This was, after all, the most impressive field ever assembled for the 100 metres. This was the field for which Tyson Gay failed to qualify.

Instead, second place went to Thompson, with a personal best of 9.89; bronze to Dix at 9.91. Bolt had won by a margin of 0.2s; Powell finished fifth (9.95), explaining afterwards that his ‘legs just went’. The best performance in a 100m sprint seemed to scare the competition slow. I actually didn’t know who came second or third, such was the margin of victory.

Not that the losing efforts really mattered. With a not-trying-hardest time of 9.69, it’s not as though either Powell or Gay – still to be considered the main challengers – have a real shot of beating Bolt for anything major any time soon. This could easily have been 9.66 or 9.65.

Johnson remarked after the race that it was pretty much over for 100m sprinters right now. He made the point that, when Bolt does eventually make his best-possible time, it will not be beaten for many years. Why would it be? Here is a man of remarkable stride length, who gains momentum from the blocks very quickly, who has pretty much perfect technique. It is hard to see how a shorter sprinter could beat Bolt at his best in the current climate.

Suddenly, Gay’s best time of 9.77 (he actually ran 9.68 in Japan once, though essentially with a hurricane at his back) seems rather normal. It is a matter of time before Gay is bested in the 200m stakes too. Currently the second fastest man at the distance in history, his 19.62 isn’t far away from Bolt’s best of 19.67.

With Gay not competing in the 200m a far as I am aware, the distance is Bolt’s to lose. Again the question arises of records, though I doubt Johnson’s time will be bettered at this competition. Michael seemed slightly nervous today as he questioned Bolt’s endurance (Colin Jackson ribbed him by using Bolt’s lap of honour as evidence of endurance) to sprint that extra hundred metres.

For me, the 200 metres is not a question of Bolt’s endurance; he seems to have energy and focus in spades. Bolt is a seemingly unstoppable force, but the real point is the immovable object that is Johnson’s record.

Bolt came into Beijing already holding the 100m record. (By his own admission Usain didn’t care about breaking records in this final; he just wanted to win.) Before he held the record, his best time was just two hundredths of a second from the then best time ever. The 200 is a different matter entirely, with Bolt – and all mortals – a third of a second off the best time.

If anyone can break the record Michael Johnson and his amusingly straight back achieved twelve years ago, it is Bolt, though many of the fastest men at the distance are running in 2008, such as Gay and Dix. I would just expect incremental gains to be made before any human makes such a leap of pace.

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