Bolt vs Gatlin: Two stories, two trajectories. Beijing prediction

21 Aug 2015 Posted by
So the IAAF World Championships start in Beijing tomorrow, and depending who you believe, you’re either watching a 99% clean event (Lamine Diack), 85% (BBC/ARD documentary) or something even depressingly lower than that (and 30% of your medalists may be dodgy).

Nevertheless, while doping is a story that can’t be ignored, and it takes some cognitive contortionism to ignore, there is an athletic event to consider, and whether you see it as a true competition, or simply entertainment, there are some good races to look forward to.

The men’s 100m happens Sunday, and as always, it’s highly anticipated. All the more so this year because of the doping context it brings – you have Gatlin, this year’s fastest, against Bolt, history’s fastest, and an intriguing clash of personalities (and performance trajectories, see below) that has led the media, pretty stupidly and lazily (a convenient apathy), to cast Gatlin and Bolt in roles of villians/evil and hero/good.

This article by Tim Layden has a good summary of why staking the future of the sport on who wins is pretty stupid, and how the characterization of the two sprinters is pretty lazy.

Nevertheless, some of my thoughts on the actual race:

Bolt was outside 10s all year, until July 24th, when he ran 9.87s twice on the same day.

Gatlin has not been slower than 9.80s all season, running his fastest in mid-May (9.74s).

That’s why the 100m final, assuming it happens, brings together two interesting trajectories – Gatlin is looking for a small peak, another 0.05s, perhaps, an he run 9.69s. You have to think that if he’s structured it right, he should be capable of faster than the 9.74s from May. Alternatively, you could ask whether he has run his best already, and will be ‘stuck’ at 9.74s in Beijing too?

If Gatlin is able to squeeze out a small improvement (which I suspect will be the case), then Bolt is looking for 0.18s improvement, over and above what he achieved between May and his races in London one month ago. How does that compare to past years?

  • Back in 2008, he went from 9.72s in May to 9.69s in August, 8 weeks later (but we all know he could’ve run maybe 9.63s that day)
  • In 2009, he jumped 0.21s (9.79s to 9.58s) in the month leading up to Berlin World Champs
  • In 2012, the improvement over his final month was 0.13s (9.76s to 9.63s)
  • In 2013, he improved by 0.08s (9.85s to 9.77s) in three weeks.

So there’s one precedent for the magnitude of improvement I suspect he needs to challenge Gatlin – 2009. Six years have passed, however, and father time is a handbrake. Plus Bolt has had a patchy season, and his 2014 was almost non-existent by comparison. Asking for a 2009-type improvement is asking a lot, in my opinion.

As for whether such an improvement should be regarded with suspicion, fact is, we don’t know. It would be unusual, for Bolt, to make that leap, but not impossible. It would be unusual for ANYONE to make this large an improvement in one month (you can do the comparisons for yourself – you’ll find that 0.2s is not typical). But there are too many confounding variables to answer that definitively.  Ultimately, a big part of it is that an athlete “chooses” how to put their season together, and that obviously influences measured improvements enormously.  So, rather than commit to the improvement, I would say that the history of the men’s 100m gives you reason for skepticism of any performance faster than 9.85s, regardless of how much faster someone gets over X weeks.

However, for the reasons outlined above, I’d pick Gatlin to win this one, 9.69s, versus around 9.74s for Bolt. I think it’s too much to ask of an inconsistent season, in a slightly older sprinter. But as I say, it’s an interesting clash of trajectories – can Gatlin improve by a little, and if he does, can Bolt improve by a lot?

Regardless of the doping backstory and stupid “good vs evil” narrative, the < 10s of racing should be fun to watch on Sunday.


P.S. Beijing coverage – I’ll do my best to post thoughts on the events, not all of them, but where I feel there’s some value to be added.  I’ll call it the “So-called Beijing Roundup” in honour of Lord Coe and the IAAF, and as always, any donations would be most welcome!  Enjoy the Games/show/farce/fun!