Usain Bolt blasts to 19.59s in the rain in Lausanne
I keep waiting for Usain Bolt's star to lose some of its lustre, for a race where he looks a little sluggish, where he doesn't look like a completely different athlete to his rivals. And it doesn't seem to be coming any time soon...
Last night, Bolt was due to run in the 200m in Lausanne, and much hype surrounded the race. So you can imagine that when the heavens opened and it poured with rain before and during the meeting, people's expectations were dampened somewhat.
The men's 100m was won in 10.07s - a relatively slow time. The women's 100m was taken in 11.03 - good, but not spectacular. It was not a fast night for sprinting, and quality athletes all seemed down by a couple of percent on their normal times. And when the wind picked up, Bolt was faced with a headwind, it would have been quite acceptable to run anything around 20 seconds.
But Bolt unleashed a 19.59s time, which is absolutely extra-ordinary, running into a headwind of 0.9m/s in wet conditions. His margin of victory was 0.82 seconds, over LaShawn Merrit, the Olympic 400m champion, with other Olympic finallists (medallists among them) trailing even further behind.
You can watch the race here, in case you missed it:
The gap to second is an amazing 4.2%, which is the equivalent of first and second being separated by almost 5 seconds in an 800m race! Of course, that never happens because of pacing and race strategy, but it's an incredible margin of victory over a decent quality field.
About a month ago, Tyson Gay laid down his marker when he ran 19.58 seconds in New York. That still stands as the fastest time in the world this year, and so on paper, anyway, Gay and Bolt have a great duel lined up in Berlin later this year.
But on the track, and in the rain, Bolt more than matched Gay's performance. There seems little that Bolt cannot do, barring injury, and on the right day, his own world record of 19.30s seems fragile. Considering that only a year ago the 19.32s of Michael Johnson was the most "unbreakable record" in track, Bolt has certainly moved the sport forward a few generations.
Late edits & additional thoughts:
I came across this discussion forum on LetsRun, which starts out as a comment on Bolt's 19.59s and then rapidly spirals into a discussion on Bolt's status as either drug-free or doped. This is an inevitable discussion in the sport, sadly, just as it is for cycling, which is our current focus here on The Science of Sport with the Tour de France in full swing.
I say "inevitable", because history has shown that success in sprinting is linked to doping - once bitten, twice shy, so to speak. And the fact that since about 1988, sprinters have been basically been the pin-up boys of doping (take a bow, Ben Johnson) means that Bolt will always be stepping into the same tainted spotlight as those whose place he is now taking.
I must confess I don't know what to make of the debate. If you go through the arguments in the discussion thread, you'll see a number of approaches, some logical, some a little leaner on thought. In cycling, and particularly with Lance Armstrong, so much (admittedly circumstantial) evidence exists that the situation should be evaluated quite differently from how one has to evaluate an athlete like Bolt (though he might, on the basis of this thread, garner a fair amount of this in years to come).
People will invariably spring to the defence of cycling as the only sport that has actually looked at itself closely (this is not really true - cycling wished it could bury its head in the sand, and it was the anti-doping bodies that forced cycling's ugly side to the surface). Perhaps the same spotlight on track would produce the same festering wounds, who knows?
But one argument I can't subscribe to is that if Bolt and Armstrong are both dominant over their rivals, then either both are doping, or neither is. That doesn't work for me, because it looks at performance in two completely different sports in complete isolation, and it doesn't quantify the dominance to begin with. It also ignores the context of cycling in the 90s and 2000s, and the reams of other evidence that have been produced by credible journalists who cover cycling. Are athletics journalists just not as curious (or malicious, depending on your opinion of them) as those who write about cycling? Seems unlikely to me. Finally, it ignores the fact that Bolt, even as a junior, had extra-ordinary talent.
Bolt the junior was so talented that many are now saying "told you so", and they are obviously most vocal in his defence. I actually did a post on Bolt after Beijing, detailing his junior times, and they are quite spectacular. 20.13s at the age of 17 is one such example.
I've often been of the opinion that a great deal of insight can be gained on an athlete's status by looking at their junior performances, and certainly Bolt's did suggest something special. If that junior talent was unaided by doping, then the senior performances may also be. That is the thinking anyway...I realize that projecting senior times based on junior success is a hazardous exercise and it's easy to adopt a "told you so" view now that he's delivered.
That said, I still don't have a definite opinion on Bolt. My gut reaction is that Bolt is so different from the likes of Johnson, Mitchell and Christie, who were big, powerful runners, that I feel as though his speed comes from something other than muscle and brute power, and hence might be achieved without doping. I recall that post-Beijing, I did a post on him suggesting this, and that his advantage may lie in what seems to my naked eye as exceptional elasticity and a neurological difference. He simply looks different at top speed, and that's as unscientific as evidence comes, but I think it's important. Then again, Carl Lewis also looked different, and he's hardly squeaky clean...
Just to add a final thought or two - a lot of people are pointing at the number of tests as a reason athletes are clean. In this day and age, this is completely irrelevant. Marion Jones never tested positive, neither have many other athletes who are known drug cheats. So the number of negative tests is no longer a basis of defence, sadly. It may be that the athlete is clean, but this is not the hook to hang your argument on in a world of designer drugs and undetectable substances or methods!
And then finally, you'll have a laugh at how some people invoke jealousy and a spirit of patriotism as a defence for Bolt. You'll see on the final page of the discussion, one poster is described as an "impostor" for daring to speculate on the Jamaican system. The poster, "X-fit", actually makes some great points, and it's one of the better comments I've read. But rather than discuss the merits (or flaws) of his arguments, the easiest defence is to attack his nationality, label him an impostor and then say that his opinions are down to "jealousy" or being a sore-loser! It seems a fairly common defence, because in that post I did on Bolt after Beijing 2008, the same happened - a lot of very angry people accused me of being "pro-American" and jealous of Jamaica's great performances in Beijing! (and this despite the fact that I was suggesting he was not doped!)
So make up your own mind, and let the debate continue! What I will say, in agreement with X-Fit is that if he is caught, well, athletics would be in free-fall!
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Wednesday, July 08, 2009
Usain Bolt blasts to 19.59s in the rain in Lausanne