Recent results suggest Australian distance running is in an exciting renaissance phase. Three runners have stood out and recently produced Australian records on the world stage.
Thousands will never dance again at a stadium to Bob Marley’s One Love. Millions will never see live on TV again the greatest sprinter the world has ever seen.
Usain Bolt has said goodbye to the world of competitive sprinting after an unprecedented career. Triple double, i.e both 100m and 200m titles at three consecutive Olympics (2008, 2012 and 2016) is his staggering feat. This has not been done by any other sprinter and is not likely to be repeated.
In fact, the feat was actually a triple triple. He had won three more Olympic Golds by being a member of the 4 x 100 relay team, though unfortunately one Gold, and also the world record was taken away after his team member Nesta Carter was disqualified for doping offences.
This was detected in 2017 as many as nine years after the actual winning performance in the 2008 Olympics. Thus Bolt finished with eight Olympic Golds.
At the 2017 London World Championships as well, just before his final event, Bolt had as many as 11 golds and two silvers and was the most successful athlete ever at this premier event.
We will come to his performance at his final event a bit later. Before that let us hop on a time machine and go back to the future to assess a few aspects of Bolt’s life and persona.
Born in Sherwood Content, a small town in Jamaica, Bolt’s parents ran a local grocery store. Usain was interested in both football and cricket and has often said that if he were not a sprinter, he may have been a cricketer.
Bolt has stated that he is a fan of Sachin Tendulkar, Chris Gayle, Matthew Hayden and as a child admired the Pakistan cricket team and the bowling of Waqar Younis. He has clean bowled Gayle in a match and hit him for a six. Curtly Ambrose has admired his pace bowling.
Bolt also has stated that he is a lover of the football team Manchester United and has expressed a desire to play for it after he retires from athletics.
Interestingly, at 6’5, Bolt’s height is usually considered a disadvantage in sprints. However, being Jamaican has helped. Studies have shown that 75 per cent of Jamaicans have the sprinting gene ACTN3 as compared to 70 per cent of Americans.
A Jamaican’s centre of gravity is believed to be at the sole of the feet. Some even say that the aluminium rich soil of Jamaica increases the activity of the sprinting gene.
Bolt converted his height from a disadvantage to an advantage, he takes longer strides.
While most elite sprinters take between 43 to 50 strides over a 100m race, Bold takes just 41. His height also means that in the last 60 per cent of the race he pulls away from his competitors, but this means he usually has a weaker start than them.
My personal view is that it is possible that his disqualification in 2011 World Championships has led to a slightly slower and cautious start and moreover Bolt knows and has the confidence he can make it up in the second half of the sprint.
Bolt is a Jamaican. Is that significant?
Why does Jamaica steadily send across world champions?
Certainly, hard work goes into Jamaica having world champions on a conveyor belt. In March every year, there is the annual Boys and Girls Schools sprints championships which are held in the 35000 capacity National Stadium. It is always full as spectators come in large numbers to cheer their school champions who they know are world champions of tomorrow.
Sponsors and talent scouts are there and they often choose these young school boys and or young girls to encourage them and ensure they take up sprinting as a career.
Along with this is the very culture of Jamaica, which seems to encourage sprinters and sprinting. Hilly terrain and grass ensures strong hamstrings, calf muscles and legs, excellent stamina and fewer injuries.
Sprinting is a way to escape poverty and sprinters are well respected. The average diet of Jamaican stresses on fruits and vegetables and the weather allows throughout the year outdoor training.
Coming back to Bolt, it is an interesting reflection of his personality that other elite sprinters not only respect but also like him. Normally a superstar is aloof and tends to look down upon his “lesser mortals”. Bolt is different and his rivals know that while Bolt may monopolise the medals, he has brought global attention on himself which has resulted in huge pay increases for other sprinters as well.
The Olympic dream began when Bolt, who was already earmarked for success in 200 metres, expressed his desire to run the 100 metres as well. His coach, Glen Mills was initially sceptical due to his poor starts and habit of looking over the shoulder. However, as a concession and encouragement, he told Bolt that he could do so if he broke the Jamaican National record.
Bolt stunned the world by setting a World Record in only his 5th race and the coach agreed to his request to run the 100 metres.
In the 2008 Olympics, Bolt was already a favourite for both the 100m and 200m. He ran an electrifying race to win the 100m with 9.69 seconds, improving his own World Record. Strikingly Bolt slowed down at the end of the race to celebrate and his shoelace too was untied.
He also won the 200m by breaking all time great Michael Johnson’s World record and followed it up with yet another world record performance for the 4 x 100-metre gold. Little did he know this would be taken away nine years later.
In 2012, Bolt retained the 100m and the 200m and was the first ever to defend both sprint Golds. During the 200m win, he placed his finger on his lips to silence his critics and just after completion he did 5 push-ups, one each for his 5 golds.
Bolt then with ease helped his fellow Jamaicans to the 4 x 100m gold as well. This was celebrated by imitating the Mobot celebration of all time great Mo Farah.
Both in 2015 and 2016, his rival Justin Gatlin appeared much better prepared. For instance, in 2015, Gatlin had broken the 9.8 barrier five times. Yet at the World Championships, it was Bolt who won by a margin of 0.01 seconds with a timing of 9.79 to Gatlin’s 9.8.
The same story continued at the 2016 Olympics, where for the 3rd time in three Games, Bolt won the 100, the 200 and the 4 x 100.
Bolt justified what he had said before the Games, that he wanted to win and be as great as Pele and Mohammed Ali. It appeared as if Bolt was mocking at his rivals and saying, “Do what you want, I will still finish ahead of you.”
It finally came down to his last event, the 2017 World Championships in London. Surely Bolt would go out with a win. Fate seemed in his favour as his main rival, Canadian sprinter Andre de Grasse, opted out of the competition due to hamstring issues.
Others seemed nowhere close to his aura. However, Bolt won his heat with a slow 10.07. While in the semi final he improved to 9.98, that was 0.01 second slower than Christian Coleman.
A slow start in the final was possibly the Achilles heel for Bolt who finished third, behind Coleman and none other than Justin Gatlin. After threatening but failing to defeat Bolt in 2015 and 2016, Gatlin finally managed to do so in Bolt’s last race of his career.
However, as a homage, the victor Gatlin knelt before the vanquished Bolt. It was a symbolic gesture that Bolt is the greatest.
There will never be another athlete like Usain Bolt again.