Usain Bolt is the greatest sprinter ever, for now

By Spiro Zavos, Spiro Zavos is a Roar Expert

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    Jamaica's Usain Bolt starts a Men's 200m first round heat during the World Athletics Championships in Berlin on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2009. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

    Jamaica's Usain Bolt starts a Men's 200m first round heat during the World Athletics Championships in Berlin on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2009. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

    The nature of sprinting is that times improve with better technology by way of faster tracks, gear and starting blocks, more scientific training, and bigger athletes. So what we can say now after Usain Bolt’s latest world record at the world championships in Berlin is that he is the fastest 100m sprinter of all time.

    He is arguably the greatest sprinter of all time, too.

    The distinction between fastest and greatest is one that involves fact and opinion. My guess is that the only other candidate for the greatest tag is Jesse Owens.

    This supreme athlete was also an Olympic gold medalist as a long jumper, a discipline that Bolt has avoided so far in his career.

    Owens was totally dominant in his day and reduced the world record for the 100m from 10.3 (Percy Williams in 1930) to 10.2 in 1936. I think that this six- year gap between the two records represents a plus for Owens in that the 10.3 time was clearly a remarkable time for the era.

    Just how remarkable can be gauged from the fact that the biggest improvement in the world record time for 100m of 10.4 was made by Charles Paddock in 1921 when he beat the world record 10.6 set in 1912 by Donald Lippincott.

    The .2 difference in time set by Paddock is the biggest single advance on the world record time since 1912.

    Owens’ record of 10.2 stood for 20 years, the longest period of time for a 100m record to stand.

    The next longest-standing record was Jim Hines’ 9.95, set in 1968, which was finally knocked over by Calvin Smith in 1983 with a time of 9.93.

    There is a strong argument to be made that Bolt is already a greater sprinter than Owens in terms of dominating his opponents and setting times far in advance of what his contemporaries can achieve.

    Asafa Powell set the world record for the 100m at 9.74 (the third time he had set a record) in 2007.

    Bolt set three records since then and has reduced the world record to 9.58, taking .16 off Powell’s time, the second biggest reduction in the history of the event. Experts expect him to improve on this because he is only 22 and sprinters tend to run their fastest in their late 20s.

    The Sydney Morning Herald carried a fascinating article on how 100m sprinters have gotten taller, heavier and faster, with Bolt at 1.96cm and 86kg being the biggest of the world record holders.

    Owens, by way of comparison, was 1.78m and 74.8kgs.

    Owens, also, ran in a choppy, short-stride style that contrasts sharply with Bolt’s huge striding style that powers him through the last 50m of the sprint, leaving his opponents almost immobile as if running through a trough of treacle.

    Apparently Bolt takes only 41 strides in the 100m run. A smaller athlete like Tyson Gay (who is Owens’ size) takes 44 strides. The significance of this stride pattern, I believe, is that athletes lose momentum when their feet are on the ground. Bolt’s feet are on the ground less often than his opponents.

    The thought occurs to me that someone, sometime, will do a Fosdick and reinvent the way the 100m is run by launching himself into the air like a long jumper from about 20m out from the finishing line.

    The SMH quotes Dr Kevin Norton, a professor of exercise science at the University of South Australia, as suggesting that “I am sure the record will go less than 9 seconds one day to a seven-foot (2.133m) man.”

    Oxford University’s Dr Andrew Tatem is quoted as suggesting that if trends continue, men will sprint the 100m in 8.098 seconds at the 2156 Olympics. So there is plenty of time and room (in theory) in place for sprinters like Bolt to cut back the record in the foreseeable future.

    We will never know if Dr Tatem is right in pointing to around 8.00 seconds as the final mark for men or women to run the 100m in.

    But in my opinion, Bolt is the greatest sprinter we’ve seen, for now.

    © AAP 2018
    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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    The Crowd Says (26)

    • August 19th 2009 @ 1:57am
      Robbo said | August 19th 2009 @ 1:57am | ! Report

      Spiro – a good article overall. The comments by Dr. Norton and Tatem indicate exactly why academics should stick to books. For a start there are simply not enough seven foot men around for one to actually break a world record. Consider that (if Bolt did not exist) the next best sprinter in the World is exactly the same height as the best of 60 years ago. Bolt is a one in 7 Billion athlete. Making extrapolations based on such an athlete is akin to judging the standard of Rugby Union wingers by extrapolating the performance of Jonah Lomu (or that of cricketers by Don Bradman). These athletes are exceptions – not rules.

      • August 19th 2009 @ 3:51am
        Robbo said | August 19th 2009 @ 3:51am | ! Report

        Cont… If height was the be all and end all in Sprinting (I’m not saying it isn’t helpful – just not imperative) then we wouldn’t be seeing the 157cm Shelly-Ann Fraser winning the womens 100m in the fastest (non-drug-assisted) time in history.

        Back onto Usain Bolt – Imagine that man on a Rugby Field!

        • Roar Guru

          August 19th 2009 @ 9:25am
          LeftArmSpinner said | August 19th 2009 @ 9:25am | ! Report

          Robbo, you accused VV of making cricket comments on a rugby thread and here you make a rugby comment on an athletics thread. People in glass houses ……………… lets just enjoy roaring together …………

        • August 11th 2012 @ 2:23am
          McKenzie said | August 11th 2012 @ 2:23am | ! Report

          How naive can one be? There is no reason to think that Flo Griffith used more drugs then today’s athletes – at the contrary! Fact is that woman’s 100 meters is in a recession for the last decade, no great champion coming forward. No Flo Griffith, no Krabbe, no Drechsler, no Ottey, no Marion Jones (butchered for hypocrisy’s sake). All the formentioned women, except Flo, were tall.
          You don’t have to be an academic to see that biomechanical advantages play an important role. Bolt is THE example of that. As people in the modern world are growing taller, we indeed can expect tall athletes in the future breaking the records of today’s small athletes. Bolt is the first of that generation. In fact, he is not even that impressive: his 9.58 equals 9.31 over a distance of 50x his bodylenght. Ben Johnson’s (the true greatest sprinter of all times) 9.79 equalled 8.71 over a distance of 50x his bodylenght.

    • August 19th 2009 @ 5:55am
      Tifosi said | August 19th 2009 @ 5:55am | ! Report

      Somehow he makes it look effortless though. Amazing

    • Roar Guru

      August 19th 2009 @ 8:01am
      Vinay Verma said | August 19th 2009 @ 8:01am | ! Report

      Spiro..Electronic Timing was introduced in 1976 and since then every World Record Holder has been of West African Descent. Genetics is put forward as a theory deriving on the fact that slaves and their offspring were the fittest of the fittest. It is a coincidence that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,specifically banning slavery,was also adopted by the UN in March 1976. Even though slavery had been banned for over a century it took till 1976 to have an almost Universal Declaration. In every sense the “slaves” were now free to run.
      Looking around at NFL,Basketball,boxing and sprinting the genetic theory has good currency.

      So should we get a generation of Aussies working in quarries and hope in 2100 we can have our own 100 Meter Champion?

    • August 19th 2009 @ 8:25am
      Brett McKay said | August 19th 2009 @ 8:25am | ! Report

      There was an interesting article somewhere yesterday noting that had the 100m sprint been run in a 40km/h school zone, Bolt would’ve been booked for speeding!!

      I’ll ask the same question I posed yesterday – when is Bolt going to run out a full 100m, rather than turning off toward the end, like he did in Beijing, and again in Berlin?? Will he ever need to run the full 100m?!?

      • August 19th 2009 @ 4:29pm
        Robbo said | August 19th 2009 @ 4:29pm | ! Report

        Did you actually watch the race? Bolt definetly didn’t slack off at the end. If he slowed down it is because at the 90m mark it becomes impossible to sustain full pace – it is nothing to do with lack of trying!

    • Roar Guru

      August 19th 2009 @ 9:30am
      LeftArmSpinner said | August 19th 2009 @ 9:30am | ! Report

      Bolt suffers from his predecessors and their drug taking past. I admire how well he moves, how quick he is, and the times he records, but, it reminded me of Ben Johnson at the Olympics. Thrashing the record and the best in the world by too much!!!!!! Beating the record by .11 of a second!!!!! No sign of new shoes, or new track or any other obvious assistance.

      I am just sick of being let down and misled.

      I put the question to a very, very knowledgeable friend of mine who was also an international athlete and national champ. The reply was scepticism with the qualification that he has been good since he was a kid.

      • August 19th 2009 @ 9:43am
        Knives Out said | August 19th 2009 @ 9:43am | ! Report

        Bolt invigorates me. It is a breath of fresh air to see such a relaxed, open-hearted sporting phenomenon. I’d love to see him take on the 400 metres once more.

    • August 19th 2009 @ 9:52am
      Art Sapphire said | August 19th 2009 @ 9:52am | ! Report

      LAS – he beat his own record by .11 because unlike what Brett said, he did not switch off in Berlin like he did in Beijing. His time in Beijing would have been close to 9.6 otherwise. If you want proof Brett, I suggest you find the 2 races on youtube and compare.

      Ben Johnson looked like a condom stuffed with chestnuts at Seoul 88 and his speed was just purely based on power. He could not run out 200m. Bolt on the other hand has been blessed with an exceptional physique. He is, I would hope, smart enough to know that he does not need drugs to improve his performance and I would suggest to you that he willl become the most drug tested and scrutinised athlete during the course of his career.

      What I think might happen is that his fellow athletes will resort to drugs to give themselves a fighting chance.

      One thing I would love to see is Bolt trying his hand at 400m.
      He might be the first athlete to run sub a 43 and who knows even a sub 42.

      • August 19th 2009 @ 9:57am
        Knives Out said | August 19th 2009 @ 9:57am | ! Report

        Did you know that Bolt started life as a 400 metre runner, Art? He is a sprinting rookie, so to speak.

        • August 19th 2009 @ 10:01am
          Art Sapphire said | August 19th 2009 @ 10:01am | ! Report

          So did Michael Holding 🙂

          • August 19th 2009 @ 4:31pm
            Robbo said | August 19th 2009 @ 4:31pm | ! Report

            I believe Bolt’s stated intention is to focus on the 400m in 2010 (becuase there is no 100/200 in the Olympics/World Champs to focus on). The only major event he has to worry about next year is the C. Games (which, Asafa Powell aside, he could win in his sleep!).

      • August 11th 2012 @ 2:28am
        McKenzie said | August 11th 2012 @ 2:28am | ! Report

        What a BS!
        1. Bolt is without any doubt using more drugs then Johnson ever did, but probably does that in a legal way due to better medical assistance.
        2. Johnson’s physique was far superior to Bolt’s, who only has very long legs and thus an incredible bimechanical advantage.
        3. For the record: Johnson ran 19.6 over 200m on training.

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