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Usain Bolt may prove to be as legendary as Muhammad Ali - Many a mickle maks a muckle

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August 16th, 2009


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11:01 pm - Usain Bolt may prove to be as legendary as Muhammad Ali
As I have grown up and learnt more about sport, I have enjoyed learning more about Muhammad Ali, former heavyweight boxing champion of the world. I have enjoyed hearing about how he transcended sport to become a rightful contender for the entirely figurative title of most famous human in the world of his day. I enjoyed hearing tales of him from my father, and when people argued in his favour as being the greatest sportsman of the twentieth century, I could appreciate why people were talking about him in that context. There are many people for whom he is the most significant sportsman within their living memory; even if he isn't for me, I can understand why some people think that way.

In the final of the 100 metre sprint in the World Athletics Championship today, Usain Bolt of Jamaica won, setting a new world record of 9.58 seconds. The second place finisher, Tyson Gay, took 9.71 seconds, which was faster than any man on the planet except Bolt had previously run. Asafa Powell finished third in a comparatively leisurely 9.84 seconds. Watching Bolt run made me pant with admiration and delight. You may recall his victory in the 100 metre sprint at the Olympic Games last year, when he broke his own world record by running 9.69 seconds, and he clearly had relaxed before the end of the race. How quickly could he have gone if he hadn't relaxed? Well, quite possibly 9.58 seconds.

I think it is appreciably likely that Usain Bolt will hold the 100 metre sprint world record for the rest of my life. He may well break this 9.58 second record yet, and has hinted he may be capable of running it in under nine and a half seconds. Perhaps I will have the pleasure, in time, of explaining to a young sports fan the significance of Bolt's achievements and how spectacular it was to watch his dominant performance. (New legislation coming in next year meaning that even a single false start means instant disqualification probably helps current running records' chances of survival, as sprinters can be expected to take fewer chances with the B of the bang.)

Lest we forget, breaking ten seconds is a world-class performance that only a few dozen have achieved. It's a beautiful barrier to break just for its economy of expression - a more significant barrier than even the four-minute mile. The record progression for the 100 metre sprint requires interpretation, with its sidenotes of altitude-set records and the like. It's also relevant to note that a couple of other runners have dipped under the 9.7 second barrier, but only with the assistance of exceptionally - and hence illegally - favourable winds. The track may have even been a fast one, but for Bolt to be the fastest runner ever by a margin of 0.13 seconds represents dominance that may prove dynastic.

If the second best hundred metre time in the world is 9.71 seconds - 0.13 seconds behind 9.58 seconds - then it may be instructive to step back further increments of 0.13 seconds for comparison. Nobody legally ran 9.84 seconds until Donovan Bailey in 1996, thirteen years ago. Going back another 0.13 seconds, nobody legally ran 9.97, except at altitude, until Carl Lewis in 1983. (Another 13 years back, more or less.) Going back another 0.13 seconds takes us into the days before automatic timing, but I think we're looking at probably the 1960s. With this in mind, I do not expect anyone other than Usain Bolt to run as fast as 9.58 seconds for another - say - thirteen years, and Bolt may yet put his own record further beyond doubt.

Compare this with the 200 metre record of 19.72 seconds set by Pietro Mennea in 1979. Michael Johnson shaded past it in June 1996, then shattered it with a 19.32 later that year. That's another example of a dynastic, 17-year world record, that was shattered by a margin considered inconceivable. Usain Bolt snicked a couple of hundreds off it last year. It's also fun to note that Michael Johnson has been acting as a commentator for the BBC, and the BBC also had a camera trained on him watching Bolt race. His fixed, slack-jawed, disbelieving face will stick in my mind almost as long as Bolt's incredible victory; the whole ten minutes is one of my broadcasting highlights of the year so far.

It's tempting to wonder about Usain Bolt's future. He may well improve upon his own records yet; after all, he's still just 22 years old, and was clearly thinking about the clock rather than about his race for the last few metres. There is no official world record for the 150 metre race, though Bolt clocked (though who knows how accurately?) 14.35 seconds for it earlier this year, which is a good 4% faster than even these legends. Bolt might be able to run faster 200 metre sprints yet; if the 200 metre record is typically better than half the 100 metre record - though, Wikipedia notes, this is now not the case, so a 100 metre sprinter really has been the fastest man on earth - then there may be further for it to fall. I want to see Bolt run 200 metres, and 150 metres, and 300 metres, and 250 metres, and 400 metres just because, and 60 metres even though his start is not his best attribute...

It's also tempting to try to wonder about how the record might, eventually, be broken by someone else. The saddest of all ways for the Bolt era to end would be a discovery that his praeternatural performances have come from use of performance enhancers; as horrible as it was - for the novelty - when Ben Johnson was found positive, Bolt might theoretically be a bigger nail in the track coffin still. It's theoretically possible that the drug makers are outwitting the drug detectors in the arms race and the performance might yet be rescinded, but it's an allegation that nobody is at all seriously making, least of all me. I certainly don't want it to be true.

It's also possible that there might be technological improvements that improve the state of the art of sprinting. There are such things as fast tracks, but I note that Asafa Powell once tied his world record about thirty miles from here, at the Gateshead International Stadium whose track is far from the state of the art. Perhaps there might be aerodynamic improvements in the style of swimming technology, but this seems unlikely. Perhaps nanotechnology will improve our bodies and musculature yet, though it'll cause some awfully interesting ethical debates if ever it proves possible. (Compare with issues relating to Oscar Pistorius, in passing.)

Probably the most likely reason for Bolt no longer to hold the world record would be a commercial one; should the governing body of athletics decide it needs a reason to derecognise old world records and encourage interest in athletics by establishing new ones, it will certainly do so, though it's probably harder to justify messing with the 100 metre world record than it is to justify messing with the javelin world record. As much as the IAAF once decided to require world records to be timed to two decimal places, perhaps it might yet decide to require new world records to be timed to three decimal places. Perhaps Bolt's record was timed to three decimal places after all; we shall see. (Compare with the controversies over some of the women's world records.)

If none of these prove the case, and I rather hope they do not, then the way to break Bolt's world record is simply to find someone bigger and better still. At a metre and ninety-six - or 6'5" to you and me, for I still think of people's heights in feet and inches, despite being strongly pro-metrication otherwise - Bolt has successfully challenged the orthodoxy that tall people are not natural sprinters by virtue of the remarkable length of his stride. Perhaps the very tall might be able to bring a similar rate of strides per second to Bolt to an even longer stride in the future, and perhaps our next 100 metre record holder will be 6'7" tall. Or 6'9". Or 7'2". (Donald Dinnie was apparently a champion sprinter in the 19th century, while also being a strength athlete - though only just over six feet tall.) I certainly wouldn't mind seeing more huge runners and fewer huge basketball centers.

It remains to be seen just how dominant Bolt will be over time; I look forward to following the rest of an already globally outstanding career immensely. Tiger, Roger, Ole Einar and Lance: worry.

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