NOW that Usain Bolt has won both the 100- and 200-metre men’s races in three consecutive Olympics, his perch atop the all-time ranking of male sprinters looks unassailable. But reports of Mr Bolt’s powers go beyond his own prowess on the track. In 2012 Steve Haake, a professor at Sheffield Hallam University, claimed that Mr Bolt was responsible not only for his own performances but also for a 1% improvement in his competitors’ running times, as they either became more motivated to catch up to him or began copying his technique.
Although Mr Bolt’s 2016 gold medals may glitter just as much as his hardware from 2012 and 2008, his times were far more modest: he took 9.81 seconds to reach the finish line in the 100 and 19.78 seconds in the 200. Both marks were around the 50th-best marks ever, and a far cry from his world records of 9.58 and 19.19.
On one hand, such a slowdown was to be expected: Mr Bolt turned 30 the day before the closing ceremony in Rio de Janeiro, and sprinters tend to peak around age 26. His 100-metre times had already crept up from 9.63 seconds in the 2012 Olympics to 9.79 in the 2015 World Championships, while his 200-metres slowed from 19.32 in 2012 to 19.55 in 2015.
Based on ageing curves calculated by Roger Pielke, a professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, Mr Bolt probably has just a year or two left as the world’s fastest man; from age 30 to 34, the best annual times for top-ten male sprinters rise by about 0.25 seconds in the 100 and some 0.4 seconds in the 200. Of the 117 runners who have run the 100 in under ten seconds, just eight achieved their best time after turning 30. Mr Bolt presumably had Father Time in mind when he said he planned to retire after the 2017 World Championships.
Yet while there’s nothing unusual about Mr. Bolt losing a step, what is surprising is that no one has emerged to challenge him. Although Mr. Haake did not posit a causal mechanism by which Mr. Bolt magnetically pulls his rivals towards the finish line alongside him, there certainly appears to be a correlation between his performances and those of people racing against him, one which far exceeds the impact of wind: just when he “slumped” to a pedestrian-by-Bolt’s-standards pace this year, the rest of the men’s field compiled even more lacklustre showings (see chart). In 2012, the top three non-Bolt finishers averaged 9.81 seconds in the 100 and 19.73 in the 200; this year, those marks were 9.91 and 20.09. The results in Rio certainly do not support the theory that Mr. Bolt’s competitors were likely to chip into his advantage by learning from his approach.
Eight years after Mr Bolt burst onto the scene, why has it been so hard for rivals to catch up to him? One argument is that Mr Bolt is simply a unique physical specimen. At 1.95 metres (six feet, five inches) and 94 kg (207 lbs), he was far and away the tallest and heaviest of the 100-metre runners in Rio. He pairs these long legs with his incredible turnover speed: at the 2012 Olympics, he needed just 41 steps to cover 100 metres, one-and-a-half fewer strides than the runner-up, Justin Gatlin. It may not do competitors any good to imitate Mr Bolt unless they match his physique, and finding someone of his size with a sprinter’s acceleration is not easy.
Another reason could simply be a random bout of underperformance. Mr Bolt’s clear heir apparent is his compatriot Yohan Blake, whose personal-best times of 9.69 seconds in the 100 and 19.26 in the 200 have been surpassed only by Mr Bolt.
However, a series of hamstring injuries has derailed Mr Blake, and he is yet to regain his form from 2012. The only other runner ever to achieve a 9.69 in the 100, Tyson Gay, was suspended for doping in 2013 and has also failed to match his earlier times.
The biggest threat to Mr. Bolt was probably Mr Gatlin, who wound up with the silver in the 100. But Mr Gatlin is now 34, and even an uncommonly fast 34-year-old—perhaps kept spry thanks to a four-year hiatus for a doping suspension of his own—is still a 34-year-old. Asafa Powell, another countryman of Mr Bolt’s, faces similar problems at 33.
But the elephant in the room is performance-enhancing drugs.
In addition to Mr Gatlin and Mr Blake, Mr Bolt’s fellow Jamaicans Steve Mullings and Nesta Carter have also tested positive—the latter in a re-test of a sample from the 2008 Olympics, which will probably cause all members of that year’s Jamaican 4×100-metre relay team (including Mr Bolt) to be stripped of their medals for the event.
The major scandal that erupted last year over doping in athletics has brought newfound scrutiny to the sport. And in the past, runners’ performances have tended to drop off when new drug-testing initiatives have taken effect. The recent drive forward in testing standards has been pushed primarily by Central American and Caribbean countries, particularly Jamaica. It is possible that some of the runners who otherwise might have exceeded Mr Bolt’s 2016 times are either currently suspended, or have stopped doping in order to preserve their eligibility.
Unless Mr. Blake manages to make a full recovery from his ailments, Mr Bolt will likely continue to benefit from weak competition in the near future. Andre de Grasse, Canada’s 200-metre silver-medallist, is an up-and-coming threat at age 21. But he has only ever beaten Mr Bolt’s 2016 Olympic 100-metres time of 9.81 once, when he enjoyed the benefit of a strong tail wind.
Perhaps the best candidate is Trayvon Bromell, an American who disappointed in Rio, but still holds the title of fastest teenager ever after running a 9.84-second 100 metres at the age of 19. (Mr Bolt did not break the 10-second barrier until he was 21.)
However, Mr Bromell is only 1.75 metres tall. So if he does wind up surpassing Mr Bolt, it will be by adopting a polar-opposite running style. In the inverse of the old saying, if you can’t join ’em, beat ’em.
Courtesy: The Economic

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