IN A RECENT New Yorker discussion on track-and-field Olympic events, the writer Malcolm Gladwell spoke of the extraordinariness of Jamaica’s success in races when you consider its poverty and population of 2.7 million (one-fourth of Mumbai’s, incidentally). Gladwell, who is part Jamaican, said, “Jamaica reminds us, I think, that we have to stop using income as a proxy for all good things. I once read this wonderful (and somewhat whimsical) essay by a Jamaican literary scholar arguing that one of the reasons that Jamaica does so well at running is that it has no snakes (yes, Jamaica is a hundred per cent snake-free), which means that children can run barefoot with impunity. I’m not sure how seriously to take that. But as a metaphor I think it speaks volumes. Jamaica is poor and, in places, violent and deeply dysfunctional. But it also comes pretty close, in a lot of ways, to paradise.”
It is in such an indigent Eden of athletes that Usain Bolt happens to be the crown jewel. Imagine him running with abandon as a child who does not have to take snakes into consideration, but also in that scene picture him alone, because who can catch up with someone who would go on to win three Olympics 100 metres gold medals, a dominance stretching over a decade? At 9.81 seconds this time, he was far behind the world record, but that, at 9.58 seconds, is also his. Bolt is the fastest man on earth and it is not a record that will be broken anytime soon, because the only man who will be able to do it among current athletes is Bolt himself, and, for the 100 metres at least, he is past his prime.
Bolt’s feet touch the track far fewer times than his competitors, but every time they do, especially after the half-way mark of a race, the force propelling him forward is enormous
How does Bolt run so fast? He is extraordinarily tall, at 6 feet 5 inches, but height doesn’t automatically make for a great sprinter. That is a result of how much thrust one gets from the ground where one’s feet land, and Bolt gets a lot of it. His feet touch the track far fewer times than his competitors, but every time they do, especially after the half-way mark of a race, the force propelling him forward is enormous. In the heats, without any need to look at the time display, he just seems to be jogging his way to victory.
Bolt is the fastest man on earth despite not being the best of starters. Other 100 metres champions in the past have relied on a great take-off. But for Bolt, it is a bonus. He hits his stride only later, but it is enough. That is why he is even more invincible in the 200 metres. Next year might see one of the greatest races of the century if Bolt goes against Wayde van Niekerk, who has just broken an 18-year-old world record in the 400 metres category. If the race happens, as Bolt has hinted, they will be competing in a 300 metres race where endurance and speed will meet midway, a true clash of champions in unknown territory. Not in the same league as the Olympics or World Championships, but at least Bolt will have some competition.