From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.32 :: NO.33 :: Aug. 15, 2009

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COVER STORY

Set to conquer more barriers?

Experts aren’t wasting their time predicting whether Usain Bolt can take the sprint double once again at the Berlin World Championships; that is being taken for granted. The question is, can he clock another world record? By K. P. Mohan.

“Catch me if you can…,” says the blurb on the back cover of the special issue of IAAF Magazine on the Berlin World Championships. The photograph underneath, of a sprinter, arms spread out and mouth open in exhilaration, is that of the fastest man on this planet.

The picture is from the last Olympic Games. The Bird’s Nest in Beijing was privileged last August to witness two stunning world records by a man about whom half the world had not even heard of then. Since then, everyone is familiar with his signature ‘bow and arrow’ pose if not his giant striding.

The Usain Bolt phenomenon was born in Beijing on August 16, 2008. Bolt, all of 6 feet 5 inches, had so thoroughly 6destroyed the field past the half-way mark that he could relax over the final 20 metres and still clock a staggering 9.69 seconds for the 100 metres that day.

Four days later he took out a tougher-looking world record, that of 19.32 seconds for the 200 metres that belonged to the incomparable Michael Johnson.

Criticised for his antics at the 100m finish, Bolt ran through the line this time, clocking 19.30 seconds. The world was astounded a second time. What can this man from Jamaica do in future? He had just turned 22, a day after the 200 metres final in Beijing.

“I don’t think he will break it (200m world record) here. I will be shocked if he does,” Michael Johnson had said prior to the Olympics.

“An incredible time; an incredible performance,” Johnson said after the 200 metres. Experts, critics and writers ran out of words in describing this young man from the land of sprinters.

Bolt was the favourite in the Olympics, having set a world record of 9.72s for the 100 metres and beaten everyone that mattered including Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell in the run-up to the Games.

He is the overwhelming favourite again at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin, beginning August 15, in both the sprints. And the familiar dramatis personae would be there alongside, Gay and Powell included.

Experts are not wasting their time predicting whether Bolt can take the sprint double once again; that is being taken for granted. The question is, can he clock another world record?

He had pushed both the records ahead of our times, or at least that is what we thought at that time, that another superhuman effort like the one in Beijing, when he actually made sprinting look so ridiculously easy, does not look a distinct possibility.

However, scientists have argued that the short sprint remained in a group of around 25 per cent of all athletics events that could see further improvement; records in the rest 75 per cent, it has been reported, were out of reach at least for the present.

Bolt was rather raw in the 200 metres in Beijing though he was an acknowledged expert in curve running, having clocked a 19.93 as an 18-year-old, won the World junior title in 2002 and claimed the silver in the 200m, behind Gay, in the Osaka Worlds in 2007. He had vowed then that he would beat Gay next time, though it must be admitted here that the American was far from fit in Beijing.

Once again there are fitness concerns for both Gay and Powell. Bolt himself is not hundred per cent fit, though he was confident that he would be ready in time for Berlin. Gay has world-leading timings in both 100 (9.77, American and area record) and 200 (19.58, third fastest of all time) this season; Bolt comes next with 9.79s and 19.59s, the latter being the fourth fastest of all time.

Bolt has not been beaten in a 100m final since Stockholm on July 22, 2008. Then Powell had handed out a surprise defeat to his countryman, 9.88 to 9.89. Beginning with the Beijing final he has won nine 100m finals on the trot. In the 200 metres, Bolt has remained unbeaten since Ostrava, June 12, 2008.

“Gay is the closest thing to competition Bolt will have seen since his emergence last year as the fastest man in the world. There is no one else out there to touch him,” wrote Michael Johnson in The Telegraph, UK, recently.

In Beijing, everyone who saw the race, at the stadium or on television, was sure of one thing: that world record in the 100m can be cut down further by a big margin.

Former Olympic champion Donovan Bailey of Canada told New York Times last August that Bolt could have run the Beijing final somewhere between 9.55 and 9.57 had he not slowed down at the finish. Another acknowledged sprinter and Olympic silver medallist, Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago, told the daily that he would put it around 9.59. Scientists have calculated that it could have been anywhere between 9.55 and 9.60.

Bolt said in London the other day a 9.54 was possible. His coach Glen Mills had told him that. “If the coach says so, he’s always right,” Bolt was quoted as saying.

Such a timing will of course have to come when the conditions are perfect, Bolt’s body is in prime shape and maybe with the slightest of wind-assistance. Amazingly, there was no wind in Beijing when he ran that scorcher in the 100 and just a mild headwind when he shattered Johnson’s world record in the 200 metres. The start is some sort of a problem with all tall sprinters and Bolt is no exception. He had the second slowest reaction time (0.165s) in the Beijing 100m final and the third slowest (0.182s) in the 200m final.

Compare that with that of Carl Lewis, another tall sprinter when he set his last 100m world record in Tokyo, 1991. This is still considered the greatest of all 100m races. Lewis, at 0.140s, had the second poorest start — Frankie Fredericks of Namibia, who finished fifth in 9.95, had the poorest at 0.151 — among the top six, all of whom cracked 10 seconds. Lewis timed 9.86s, bettering Leroy Burrell’s mark of 9.90s. Burrell also came under the old mark with 9.88s. He had a 0.120s reaction time while the third American, Dennis Mitchell, actually false-started with a reaction of 0.090s but there was no ‘recall’ though the sprinter had breached the allowable threshold of 0.10s.

A good start is of course a huge advantage, but great sprinters like Bolt and Lewis have made light of average starts with their ability to maintain peak speeds even to the last two 10-metre segments. Bolt, for example, took 0.82s each for every 10-metre segment from 50 metres on to 80 metres in Beijing, winding up with 0.83s between 80 and 90 metres and then relaxing completely for a 0.90s for the last 10 metres.

Lewis, in comparison, in Tokyo 1991, ran his best from 40 metres on, hitting his top speed between 70 and 80 metres (0.83s) and then incredibly doing 0.87s and 0.86s for the last two 10-metre segments.

Sprinters normally hit their top speeds by 60 metres, decelerating after that, even if by a small margin. Both Maurice Greene (9.79s in 1999) and Asafa Powell (9.77s in 2005) maintained their speeds appreciably over the final 50 metres in their world record feats, both clocking 0.85s for the last 10 metres.

Even as the World Championships in Berlin approached with all the focus firmly on Bolt, there was a report about five Jamaican athletes testing positive for drugs, placing a question mark over not just the top male sprinters but also the female sprinters who had done equally well in Beijing. Rumours were, however, firmly and quickly scotched.

Doping will remain on a lot many minds when athletes pull off incredible feats. Bolt has never tested positive, but the times we live force a debate when world records are bettered.

“Is he clean?” is a natural question that comes up when someone sets a world record.

Today Bolt truly deserves the riches that have come to him following his world record double (rather treble if you include the 4x100m relay). The Jamaican surely attracts a hefty appearance fee, has several world-wide sponsors lined up, and is planning a world tour later this year, with lucrative sponsorship deals being worked out.

Obviously, the tag of a ‘world champion’ to go with that of the ‘Olympic champion’ will suit the man who grew up in Sherwood Content, a small town in Trelawny, Jamaica, showing great potential for the sprints and a penchant for jokes.




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