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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Usain Bolt 19.59s

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!



Julie said...

The commentators here noted that Bolt ran the first 100m of that race in 9.9 seconds.

Marc said...

"...it ignores the fact that Bolt, even as a junior, had extra-ordinary talent" - Lance Armstrong proponents use this same argument, so I don't see how it differentiates the two. Cycling road races and criteriums don't have the same metrics, but there must be a record of Armstrong's swimming and running times over standard distances somewhere...

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hello Julie and Mark

Thanks for that Julie, really interesting. That would be faster than the first 100m in Beijing, but then that would be expected if the wind was coming from the front and slightly left, because it would be a tailwind for maybe 70m of the first 100m, I'd guess.

Then to Marc:

You're right, they do. I'd still argue that Armstrong's talent as a junior was good, but not exceptional. It certainly didn't present as a rider who would go on to dominate the sport as he has. Looking back, people will again say it did, but the fact is, Armstrong was one of a group of very good riders at his age before 1996. Bolt was exceptional, completely dominant and capable of world class extra-ordinary performances before 2008.

World Champion at 21 is obviously the sign of a very talented rider, but Armstrong was not a dominant rider over his peers. As you correctly note, the problem is that running and cycling are so different, and as you point out, there is no objective 'metric'. For example, who is the current World Champion in cycling? It's Alessandro Ballan, but it doesn't necessarily give him dominance over his peers. Whereas in track, being a champion AND a world record holder does, and Bolt was both as a junior (over his peers, that is).

So yes, I'd like to see Armstrong's times, because that would go a long way to creating some kind of comparison. I can guarantee that they're not as remarkable as Bolt's though, because we've never heard of them! Had Armstrong been exceptional at either running or swimming, he would have been picked out early - ala Jim Ryun, Alan Webb, Michael Phelps, Ian Thorpe. Armstrong was good for his age, Bolt was incredible, and that's why the argument around junior talent does differentiate the two.

Scott said...

I entirely agree with you Ross when you describe your "gut reaction" watching Bolt run. I too get that feeling - his smooth and fluid gait speak of phenomenal natural talent, something vastly different from the manufactured heavy, pounding motion of today's sprinters. I'm amongst the most cynical of sports watchers when it comes to doping, but yet when watching Usain Bolt run my mind screams "that's for real!". It's a good feeling to have. I'm just glad to have the chance to experience it again after so many years.

Scott said...

And to add to Ross' comments about Lance Armstrong: his first few years as a professional never indicated his future dominance of the sport either. Even his supporters point to his significant weight loss on returning to the sport from battling cancer as the key to his ascension to becoming one of cycling's greats.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Scott

Thanks for the feedback, glad I'm not the only one watching Bolt with that perception. Well, to qualify that, I know it's a perception shared by a few of the sports scientists at the University where I work as well, but glad it's your perception as well! The danger is that we're seeing what we want to see, but for now, I'll hold onto that, given the junior history, and given the rest of his character, I see Bolt as quite different to the situation in "high-tech" cycling with its culture of doping, which dates back 100 years.

TO jump ahead to your second comment, you're exactly right. Lance Armstrong did not, contrary to what his fans will say, take the world of cycling by storm. He was good, like Ato Boldon was good, like Shawn Crawford has been good, like Alex Zulle was good. Point is, he stood out as PART of a group of riders with potential, Bolt is THE athlete to watch, and has been since his junior days.

Nobody can say that they were expecting Armstrong to win even three Tours when he was a junior, unless they are looking back with rose-tinted glasses. I think for Bolt, the case is far stronger!

And finally, on the whole weight loss issue, the amazing thing that Ed Coyle showed in his research is that pre-cancer, Armstrong weighed only 74kg, and the whole weight change thing has never been verified, but rather shown not to be true by the only published research! Anyway, that's another story!

Thanks for the comments, enjoy the mountains tomorrow!

And the Rome Golden League - Tyson Gay against Asafa Powell, I see!


Scott said...

Well, well ... very interesting that there are those who contest the reason given for Armstrong's sudden improvement. I was not aware of that. On the other hand I continue to say (knowing full well the era in which Armstrong raced) that there can be little doubt Lance Armstrong is his generation's greatest cyclist - doped or not.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Scott

Again, spot on and I agree with you there. Given the era, it would be difficult to argue against that position, regardless of your opinion.


Marc said...

Scott, in referencing Armstrong's evidence of early talent, I was pointing more to evidence of high aerobic capacity as an early teen (swimming, running, triathlon) rather than results in cycling - a sport in which he got a relatively late start. But I can't argue with Ross' assertion that Armstrong's performances may not have been as remarkable as Bolt's at the same ages. Still, I did see this interesting entry in Wikipedia... "Armstrong's points total for 1987 [when he was 16] as an amateur was better than the five professionals ranked that year". I'll let the triathletes - of which I'm not one - argue how deep the pool of pro triathletes was during that time period...

Anonymous said...

This article discusses what might be unique about Armstrong's physiology.

In discussing Armstrong in this context, it's worth making a distinction between the debate about question one - whether he was really clean over his career (very unlikely, just based on the prior probabilities for being a pro cyclist in that time period and the various circumstantial evidence) - and question two - whether he really needed doping enhancements to win multiple Tour de France victories later in his career.

Duff said...

ummmmm. I came back to this posting to ask about Ben Johnson.
So to take this entertaining dialogue in a different direction.
As a Canadian, and Ben is a Canadian, I was shocked when firstly he was caught and secondly he confessed.
My question is ..where would we be without the Dubin inquiry? What doping control have advanced?
The floodgates seem to have opened when Ben was banned or would the drugging have come to light evenutually anyway?

Anonymous said...

Wow... it's kinda edgy in here! Anyway, Good article. Just wanted to comment that it feels really good to see an athlete who goes on the track with his fans and the spectators who pay hard earned cash to see him perform. I believe that he truly tries to satisfy his fans. I will always remember the slow motion shot of bolt in this 200 m race when he is coming down the final 100m and u can see the drops of rain fallin on and around him... and he is jus going and going and despite the fact that he was way ahead of the field and with rain and low temperatures there is always an increased risk of injury.

I think he gets it... my favourite athlete Asafa powell unfortunately doesn't.

What do you think about kerron stewart vs shelly-ann fraser

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI Duff and Anonymous

Thanks for the comments (and bringing the discussion back on point!)

First to duff:

That's a really interesting point. I suspect that eventually, the lid would have been opened, but the fact that it happened in the Olympic Games in THE most high profile event was a big boost to anti-doping, and so I agree that was a pivotal moment.

What would have happened without it? That's interesting to speculate. I think the way it was heading, it would have been so obvious that there were massive problems that it would have been confronted eventually. Someone would have died, for example, during a warmup or training, and it would have been exposed.

In cycling, for example (which has followed a different track altogether), the problem really came to light in the late 80s, early 90s when there was a spate of deaths in young riders across Europe. That was really the first 'wake-up' call. Then Festina 1998 blew it wide open, and it's been ugly ever since.

Maybe the same would have happened for track, and rivalries would have exposed doping? Who knows?

To the anonymous poster:

Good points. I think Bolt instinctively appreciates the value of entertainment, and his huge commercial value is probably more the result of that than his running. I reckon even if he gets beaten in World Champs (which I don't think will happen), he'll remain the number 1 drawcard because of his personality.

He's certainly great for athletics, and hopefully other athletes will take a leaf from his book and learn that it's not all about performance. It's great to have rivalries like the Bolt-Powell-Gay one, hopefully athletics capitalizes on it to draw fans to the sport.

The Stewart-Fraser rivalry has the same kind of potential. It really does promise to be a huge one for many years, so I think it's great.

I don't know why this is, but I get the impression that women's 100m sprinting is still suffering under the stigma of Flo-Jo, east Germans, and more recently, Marion Jones. Jones was a huge athletics celebrity, and her demise hurt the sport badly. These two women have the chance to restore it, but I think apart from running fast, they also need to drive their personalities more. This takes us back to your point about Bolt.

I know very little about either Stewart or Fraser - they don't really come across as very charismatic women, and their celebrations when winning are pretty muted. I'm not saying they should "act", but if their rivalry is going to benefit the sport, then it needs some kind of injection of energy!

But let's hope that they keep producing 10.8 or better, and that they stay injury-free. Then maybe in a couple of years, we'll have two stars in women's 100m to go with the men's superstars!


Unknown said...

To the doubters of Usain Bolt's world leading and world record times.Come to Jamaica when we have our girl and boys high school track and field championships.There is none like it in the WORLD,we start from age 1+ ---2 years old to have track competitions in our schools.(being it a internal sports day for individual schools)At age 4+---8yrs,we have them racing shuttle relays at our national stadium.We make it fun for them and thus The Usain Bolt and the Asafa Powells are BORN.Also We encourage our children to start walking from as young as 6-9 months old,so what do you expect/Also our food is less processed coming naturally from the earth to mouth.no preservetives,just natural food.Why you think the Kenyans,Ehiopians,South Africans now are the greatest long distant runners.Natual talent,natural food,start VERY early to run LONG distances to school etc etc etc

Anonymous said...

Seeing that this is a "science" website, you dont mention anything science related. As you may think that Usain Bolt is blood doping, I certainly think that he isn't. Comparing Lance Armstrong, a primary Type I muscle user is ignorant. If you really had a PhD you would know that the difference between the two athletes is everything. While Usain is using his Type II muscle fibers, fast twitch (in case you didnt know), which uses the transfer method of glycogen or sugars (to make it easier for you); while Lance uses Type I fibers that uses Oxygen from his red blood cells. It would be more likely for Lance, a distance person, (one that uses more energy than more than 1 minute)than it would be for Usain Bolt, a short distance runner that just uses sugars to propel himslef, well of course other than his abundant amount of Type II fibers. Also, in case you were unaware, you cant develop more Type II fibers, it is in your genetic DNA. Hence the phrase: Sprinters are born, runners are made.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

To the last anonymous comment:

Did you actually read the piece?

Where on earth do you come up with your argument? Where did I compare Bolt and Armstrong with regards to their physiology?

I was making the point that people are comparing their dominance in their respective events. Not their physiology.

And if you bothered to read properly, you'll have seen that I actually come to the same conclusion as you have.

Please, read before you speak. Your insults are ridiculous.