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The Reality of Sprinting in the Age of Usain Bolt

– Derek M. Hansen –

With recent losses suffered by sporting greats such as Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, it seems that there are very few “sure-things” in the world of elite sports. Enter Usain Bolt, who not only is untouchable in competition, but also able to produce world record performances on demand in major championships. His recent 9.58 second 100 meter performance in the 12th World Championships in Athletics held in Berlin, Germany even left sprint great Michael Johnson speechless during a broadcast of the event.

 

There are many questions that arise from the coming of Usain Bolt. The breathtaking performances from last year in Beijing were not a flash in the pan, but the beginning of a new era of sprinting dominance. His results are shocking, but becoming almost expected every time he steps on the track. Key questions that I have for the next few years include:

 

What is left for those who are competing against Usain Bolt? Are they relegated to fighting it out for second place for the next few years?

Tyson Gay put together a great performance and an apparently injured Asafa Powell still managed to run 9.84 seconds, but both do not seem equipped to adequately challenge Bolt. Usain has shown no weak areas in his game and even manages to rise to greater levels during major events such as the Olympics and World Championships. One could draw parallels to Mike Tyson when he was at the top of his game. Challengers were brought forth so that the Champion could simply exhibit is talent and dominance en route to dismantling them. The only consolation for Gay and Powell was that they were not physically knocked unconscious by Bolt – just metaphorically.

Last year’s runner-ups, Richard Thompson and Walter Dix, are now further away from Bolt than they were last year. And this year, it seems that trying to run as fast as Bolt will leave you with a groin injury (not what I would call a common sprint injury) as both Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell have found out. With both Gay and Powell running as fast as they do and still coming up way short, it probably seems like a symbolic kick in the groin. It may become a revolving door of supporting cast members. Unless Bolt drives another BMW off the road or suffers an injury on the track, I see no change in the winner’s circle.

All that the competition can do is simply keep working on their own game. If I felt I had an athlete within striking distance, I would purposely keep them out of races with Bolt. It would be a way to build their confidence and their technique against more manageable competition. Obviously, you would be forgoing the possibility of big paydays – particularly if you are Powell or Gay. However, if these individuals still have the hope of being number one, they will have to take drastic measures to develop their abilities to a comparable level.

 

How fast can Bolt run?

It is clear that Bolt left something in the tank during his 2008 Beijing Olympics 100m win. There is even the belief that he could have run harder through the line in the recent 9.58 second run. Additionally, the environmental conditions in Berlin were good, but not optimal. If Bolt had a 1.9 m/s tailwind with warm conditions and wasn’t required to run three rounds of qualifying heats, what time would he be able to produce? One must also factor in additional training and experience over the next few years, as many of the past top sprinters did not peak until their late twenties.

Assuming an optimal tail wind, warm-weather, good track surface and only one race to worry about, I would think that Bolt would be able to achieve a run of 9.49 seconds this year depending on what meets he plans to run. (The temperature at Berlin was 26 degrees celsius, and the tailwind was 0.9 m/s.) Beyond that, I firmly believe that he would only be able to chisel off a few more hundredths of a second. The mediocre start and reaction time that he was believed to possess last year looks as though it has improved, so potential areas of improvement will not yield as big a return. If he does take another chunk off the 100m record, he may recognize that perhaps it will be easier to knock down other records such as the 200m and 400m. Given his speed and stature, I’d say he would even have a shot at the long jump record. How about other events? However, it is no different than a top boxer not giving a UFC fight opportunity the time of day: the payday is not even in the same universe!

 

Can he stay healthy and continue to improve?

A number sprint champions have seen their careers ended by nagging injuries. Names such as Linford Christie and Donovan Bailey come to mind. Others have had their careers ended by drug suspensions. It is a sport where longevity at the top is difficult to achieve. Although sprinting is not a contact sport, the intensity of the forces produced during the sub-10 second duration result in significant stress and trauma on the lower extremities. The elite sprinters are running much faster, more frequently than ever before. Just over 10 years ago, running under 10 seconds a few times in a year was considered a significant feat. These days, you have to run under 9.80 seconds to gain even a slight ‘ooohhh’ or ‘ aaaahh’ from the track audience. Bolt, Gay and Powell have all been under 9.80 seconds on numerous occasions. It is now expected of them.

Based on the recent groin injuries of both Powell and Gay, one has to wonder if the limits of human performance are not just limited to propulsive power and energy system requirements, but also connective tissue integrity. At some point, Usain Bolt will be running so fast that his muscles, tendons and skeleton may not be able to support the performance. Where this will occur, no one knows. Perhaps it is at 9.50 seconds, 9.40 seconds or 9.30 seconds. In order to run such times in a competition, Bolt has to be producing massively fast times in training as well. Even though Bolt is only 22 years old, this wear and tear will begin to add up. When I was a youngster, I remember seeing a kung-fu movie where the hero was hit with the “one hundred pace palm”. After taking 100 paces, he would drop dead. (He ended up only taking 99 paces, and then got some super-acupuncture treatment – go figure). What is Bolt’s magic number? The combination of both super-intensity and volume will catch up at some point.

Another consideration are the demands of being a super sports celebrity. At some point (as we witnessed by Mike Tyson), the special appearances, sponsors, agents, fans and women can create fatigue and distractions than can topple the once untouchable sports heroes. Add on top of that the super-fast sports cars and you have the potential for career ending incidents. (Note: All sports celebrities should be required to take a significant performance driving and safety course before they are allowed to drive). We have also seen Bolt competing in adverse conditions (i.e rain, cold, headwinds) because of meet commitments and contracts. The pressure to run fast times even in poor conditions could lead to serious injury. It becomes a situation where one wonders if Bolt will be beaten by another competitor or simply by himself. In the short term, it seems like the latter is more possible than any competitor stepping up to the plate and serving him a loss.

 

 

Until the time a weakness appears in Bolt’s game, whether by accident or folly, I anticipate that we will see more of the same for at least the rest of this season. I look forward to his assault on his own 200m world record in Berlin. Based on his most recent runs, I could see him easily running 19.00-19.10. A sub-19 second performance is surely within his ability. However, having to produce that time at the end of numerous races required in the 100m and 200m at a major competition will be tough. Much will depend on how the wind treats Bolt. At this point in his career, I will not be surprised by another record shattering run. He has proven that he is the GOAT (greatest of all time) at the ripe old age of 22 years, but also the SHPP (super human performance pioneer).