Usain Bolt: Sit back and enjoy the phenomenon

As Beijing empties quicker than the Bird’s Nest when Liu Xiang pulled out through injury, those of us left behind have time to dwell on some of the great moments in sporting history that we have been privileged to witness.

Michael Phelps rightly deserves legendary status, but it is Usain Bolt who has me struggling to put some context to his performances.

Put the gold medals to one side for a moment and wonder how a 6ft 5in sinewy dancehall boy can break the 100m and 200m world records in the space of five days.

To help understand his unique achievement, let’s park the adjectives and look at how he does it.

I do not profess to be a sprint coach or even to have any of the technical insight, but I have spoken to Michael Johnson and Frankie Fredericks and even they are still trying to work out all of the factors, but here are a few observations.

First, Bolt has been a prodigious sprint talent since he was in his early teens. His ability, though, was restricted to the 200m. He won the world junior championships at the remarkable age of 15. He was tall, gangly and, although blessed with good cadence or leg speed, he was not the best starter or bend runner.

His coach, Glen Mills, realised this was a talent that needed nurturing as his frame developed in order to accommodate the work load required. We got tantalising glimpses of his abilities, but always knew that, like him, we would have to be patient.

Now, in 2008, at the end of his 21st year, he was ready. The start was good enough to allow him to run 100m for some much-needed speed work. At 6ft 5in it needs to be different from most sprinters. There is not enough room or time for the knees to drive through. The first few strides are almost staccato for such a tall athlete. The toes of the spikes almost brush the ground as he drives his legs forward. There is little lift. But five strides in he is almost at full extension. Twenty metres into the race and he is level with the best starters.

After that, the combination of leg speed and stride length becomes unstoppable. The average sprinter takes 48 strides to cover the 100m. Bolt takes about 42 and his legs are moving as quickly as anyone’s—in the same way Ed Moses could take 13 strides between each of the 400m hurdles, it gives Bolt a huge advantage.

His top speed is maintained through 80m and even though in Beijing he turned to one side, his momentum was so strong he clocked 9,69s. It was maybe worth a couple of hundredths had he remained head fixed on the line, but probably no more.

Nonetheless, it was a contrast with the likes of Tyson Gay and Maurice Greene, who powered their way down the straight rather than glided. It’s the wrong word, but that’s how it appears. In the 200m there are other forces at play. To run flat out round a bend is a skill that many never master. Then the transition into straight-line running must be done smoothly as the athlete reaches his ultimate speed and then strength and technique are needed to maintain it for as long as possible.

When Michael Johnson recorded 19,32 in Atlanta in 1996, he ran the bend in 10,12 and the straight 100m in 9,20. Bolt ran 9,96 around the turn and then 9,34 into a 0,9m/sec headwind in the straight.

Fredericks of Namibia came a distant second to Johnson in that race and is still considered one of the greats of 200m running. When I told him of Bolt’s time round the bend he initially refused to believe me. He said it was impossible even for Bolt. Under 10sec out of blocks and not in a straight line. The Jamaican had to hang on to his form in the last 20m and, despite the unhelpful wind, he ran 19,30.

It was no fluke, of course. In the 4x100m relay he ran the third leg around the bend in 8,9sec! Frighteningly, having just celebrated his 22nd birthday, there should be more to come. Scientists will analyse his technique in much more detail than I ever could, but they are wasting their time. He cannot be replicated and for now he cannot be beaten. So just sit back and enjoy. I did. -

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