Top 8 of ’08: Number 4  //  Usain Bolt steals the Olympic Games

16 Dec 2008 Posted by
Michael Phelps has scooped up most of the awards for Athlete of 2008, for his incredible haul of eight golds (7 with world records, though as we’ll see, swimming world records mean very little) in Beijing.

But our athlete of the year is not Phelps, but Usain Bolt of Jamaica. The greatest sprinting Olympic Games in history – three golds, three world records, a never before achieved feat, and worthy of our title (a premature announcement, we’ll still do our 2008 Review) of Athlete of 2008.

Bolt and the “lost 0.14 seconds” – a debate on performance opens

Bolt Beijing 2008 100m goldIt is a bit of a stretch to say that Bolt’s performances demonstrate sports science in action – not as obvious a link as doping in sport, or the swimsuit issue, for example. However, Bolt has provided plenty of discussion and debate around human performance, science and physiology, and it’s for this reason that he makes our Top 8 of ’08 Sports Science stories.

The first question is how fast could he have run in that 100m final had he not celebrated from 20m out? For those who’ve been in outer space this year, Bolt ran 9.69 seconds to win gold by a huge margin. So huge that he had a chance to look to the side and start celebrating only 80m into one of the most anticipated 100m finals in history. The picture below shows the celebration and the size of the margin Bolt created.

The physicists response, and the truth

To answer the question, a group of physicists performed an analysis of Bolt’s race and predicted that he’d run 9.55 seconds. That was widely reported and taken as fact, in large part due to the method followed – a mathematical calculation from men who usually concern themselves with the origins of the universe is unlikely to be challenged!

However, it seemed very fishy to me, and back in September, I did a post reviewing that research. My conclusion? There is no way to find 0.14 seconds in the final 20m of the race, and it’s simply not possible for Bolt to have run 9.55seconds. My prediction is that he’d have run somewhere between 9.61 and 9.69seconds, most likely in the 9.64 area.

The key factor in the physicists’ work was their assumption (and the basis for their calculation) that Bolt would have continued to accelerate relative to the second place athlete, Richard Thompson. However, the splits reveal that Bolt was already slowing down from 70m to 80m. We also know that nobody continues to speed up all the way to the finish line in a 100m race – they are all slowing down.

So without rehashing the whole argument (you can read it here), the graph below shows the best, actual and potential-case scenarios.


The best case scenario is what the physicists worked out – continued acceleration. The “Actual” case is obviously what transpired, and the “potential” case is the time he would have run had he maintained his speed from 70m to 100m. As mentioned, he was already slowing down prior to celebrating, and so the truth is he’d likely run just over 9.61 seconds.

It was a really interesting discussion, and credit to the physicists for applying their minds to it – that’s what we need more of, particularly to help science grow, but also to expand the appreciation people have for sport – provide a different lens through which to watch athletes. That’s our purpose here, and kudos to the Oslo physicists for doing the same.

A number of people have written in and said that he could run 9.55 seconds if he improved his start, tied his shoelaces, and had a following wind. And that’s certainly true, but misses the point of the discussion – the discussion is not around all those other things, it was around the celebration. If one stars to pick apart all the various factors that influence performance, then every single run can be improved by a margin as large as your imagination!

The world’s highest paid athlete

Still, it will be interesting to see what Bolt does in 2009. He is going to be the highest paid athlete in the world, commanding appearance fees of $250,000. From a management point of view, this is probably not good for the sport, because most meetings, barring the big 6 or 7 will never be able to afford that – it is the equivalent of perhaps 5 or 6 Olympic champions, and about a quarter of the athlete budget of many European meetings. The result is that meeting organizers will either have to find more funding, or will sacrifice depth of competition to bring Bolt to their event. A problematic situation, perhaps?

Bolt will be hard-pressed to repeat his 2008 performances next year. World Championships in Berlin should provide another sprint double (the 200m event, which I haven’t even touched on, seems a foregone conclusion. Perhaps Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay can make him sweat in the 100m). But four world records, I’m not so sure. I think it will be a quieter year, but then again, Bolt has surprised before!

The other discussion around Bolt

The other discussion around Bolt, and the one that drew some of the most aggressive comments from readers was the issue of Bolt and performance enhancing drugs. Unfortunately, people’s reactions to this issue are tainted by emotional responses and blind patriotism. In August, during the Games, I did post titled “Discovering Usain Bolt“, in which I looked at Bolt’s historical performances, from the age of 15. This post drew some scathing attacks, from people who accused me of wanting to tarnish Jamaica’s success as a result of my jealousy that the USA had not won an Olympic gold medal in the short sprints for the first time in many, many years (I’m not American, for the record!. I couldn’t care less which country wins the medals)

It’s quite clear that Bolt was a spectacular junior talent. He ran 21.73 at the age of 15, became world junior champ at 16, and achieved all this with an apparent lack of discipline and dedication to training hard (according to some readers who know his background). Given that history, it’s not inconceivable that Bolt would produce the kind of sprinting he did in Beijing.

However, by virtue of the fact that he dominates an event in a sport that has not escaped from a doping cloud since about 1988, he automatically assumes the mantle of “suspicious individual”. This is the inevitable consequence of being a 100m champion – the same discussion would be had for anyone, so if you’re reading this and the red mist of anger is descending, just take a breath and appreciate that not a single champion in the last 20 years has been without controversy. Ben Johnson started it, Carl Lewis, Linford Christie, Dennis Mitchell, Dwain Chambers, Tim Montgomery, to name a few, have kept it going.

The reality is that whenever an athlete bursts onto the scene (and despite his phenomenal junior success, Bolt did burst onto the scene in 2008 – four world records and complete domination were unexpected, even if you are a huge Bolt fan), he will be questioned – we can thank the hundreds of cheats of the past for that. It’s guilt by association, which is not fair, but the sad reality of the sport.

So what about Bolt? That’s impossible to know. I said in my post in September that I believe Bolt is clean – there are a few reasons for this, primary among them is his physique, and what I believe to be a neuromuscular basis for his dominance. I may be proven wrong, who knows? But until such time as that happens, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Join us again tomorrow as we hit the Top 3 stories of 2008!


This post is part of the following threads: News/Controversies, Year-in-Reviews, 2008 – ongoing stories on this site. View the thread timelines for more context on this post.