Why Usain Bolt never ran his best times


Lightning and Thunder

So as of last weekend at the ripe old age of 30, Usain bolt has officially retired from the professional athletics stage.

And the whole world was pretty sad about it. He was a great sports personality and was considered the best sprinter of his generation, perhaps even a contender for one of the greatest athletes of all time. Only time will tell.

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But one thing has irked me about this character and with Bolt gone from the sporting arena, it looks like it’s going to irk me forever now.

I know this might end up sounding trivial but let me give you a speedy little narrative to illustrate why this bothers me so much.

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Ready Steady Go

When Bolt burst onto the public scene during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, he’d recently obtained the world record from his team mate Afasa Powell in the months prior, having shaved 0.02 off of it to claim 9.72. Even so, he was definitely not the favourite going into that Olympic sprint final.

However, his results at those games were nothing short of in-fucking-credible

Within the space of ten seconds, Bolt went from zero to hero, outclassing everyone else and decimating his own word record, while celebrating with 20 metres to go.

This was fucking unheard of.

And to prove his naysayers wrong, the fucker went and did it again in the 200 metres.

THEN again in the relay.

Bolt proved lightening doesn’t strike twice, but THRICE.

All of this from a 20 year old, natural 400 metre runner, who changed disciplines less than 2 years before.

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Surely this was a once in a lifetime spectacle

But the bastard only went and did the same thing in London in 2009,

  • Three more races,
  • Three more gold records
  • (Almost) three more world records.

All done with bigger margins than he managed before.

All done with relative ease.

Usain Bolt quickly confirmed his status as a God among men, illustrated by his infamous lightning bolt pose and he and his adjourning worshipers loved every fucking second of it.

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Expectations vs Reality

With Bolt having done this 2 years in a row, some people may say he put tremendous pressure on himself. Surely this type of performance couldn’t continue indefinitely, eventually he’d have to knuckle down and give these races his absolute best, right?

Right?

It would be a lie for me to deny this notion played a great role in the pantomime of his professional career. However history has shown even though he’s yet to best his times of 2009, the public still adored him. Even when he performed poorly in the last few races, the cheers of the crowed belonged to him and the competitors who beat him were either ignored or heavily booed. The man can literally do no wrong.

But something still really irks me.

You see, when he broke those records, he was young with an unrefined sprinting technique.  Now with adequate training, his sprinting is far better yet his times have been getting noticeably slower.  Not only have they taken a slump, but Bolt didn’t win a single gold medal in his final outing on the professional circuit, not even bothering to enter the 200m (Arguably his strongest event).

Is this really the calibre of the God we saw in Beijing all those years ago?

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Numbers Don’t Lie

So to give this case some merit, let’s take a look at the winning times from his Olympic Games finals

 

Olympic Games 100 200 4 x 100
Athens 2004 21.05
Beijing 2008 9.69 19.30 37.10
London 2012 9.63 19.32 36.84
Rio 2016 9.81 19.78 37.27

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And we’ll do the same for the annual world athletics (is it annual or every 2 years, who knows :-/)

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W. Championships 100 200 4 x 100
Berlin 2009 9.58 19.19 37.31
Daegu 2011 (Disqualified) 19.40 37.04
Moscow 2013 9.77 19.66 37.36
Beijing 2015 9.79 19.55 37.36
London 2017 9.95 Pusssy Did not Finish

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Finally for shits and giggles, let’s look at his season best times over those seasons.

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Season’s Best 100 200
2007 10.03 19.75
2008 9.69 19.30
2009 9.58 19.19
2010 9.82 19.56
2011 9.76 19.40
2012 9.63 19.32
2013 9.77 19.66
2014 9.98
2015 9.79 19.55
2016 9.80 19.78
2017 9.95

 

Now I appreciate it’s sometimes hard to visualise the impact of these small fractions of time, so put this into perspective, here is Bolt when he broke the world 100 metre record in Beijing at the line.

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The last person you see in this picture ran a time better than 9.95 which meant Bolt’s current time would have put him smack bang in last place in that race. These are the kinda margins you see between the senior and junior ranks in athletics.

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The Blame Game

Now you’ll have those who say this doesn’t account for all circumstances that affect a race, like track performance,  wind speed, altitude, weather, track temperature and injury.

Heck, some could even argue since Bolt’s Disqualification from the 100 metre final in Daegu 2011, his times have slowed to avoid future false starts.

And you’ll always have the complete naysayers who put this whole trend down to simply ‘old age’.

Personally I don’t think any of these are the case. Especially when you consider the following.

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Ageing like Fine wine

Most short distance sprinters have historically developed as such.

  1. Drastic improvement over their early teens
  2. Progression to the senior circuit in their early 20s,
  3. Peak times around their mid 20s and earl 30s
  4. Appearances at a medal contention level at perhaps 2 Olympic games (maybe even 3)
  5. Stay on in the sport till perhaps their mid 30s.

To illustrate, here are the life cycles of some other famous Olympic gold medallists for a quick comparison

 

Sprinter/

Year of BIrth

Adult circuit Adult circuit retirement Duration of professional career Olympic Spans Age of Best 100 m time Age of best 200 m time
Linford Christie

(1960)

1997

(37)

3 9.87

(33)

20.09

(28)

Maurice Greene

(1974)

9.79

25

(1999)

19.86

23

(1997)

Donovan Bailey

(1967)

9.84

29

(1996)

20.14

31

(1998)

Ato Boldon

(1973)

9.86

26

(1999)

19.77

24

(1997)

Frankie Fredericks

(1967)

10.05

31

(1996)

19.92

31

(1996)

Asafa Powell

(1982)

9.72

26

(2008)

19.83

24

(2006)

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However at the ripe Ol age of 31, Bolt ran 0.4s outside his personal best. In my eyes he shouldn’t be ‘that’ slow yet. Right up to the end of their careers, all these other sprinters  were providing season best times up to 0.2 of their personal bests. All while competing at an older age than Bolt is now.

Infact if you look at Justin Gatlin’s winning time this weekend, he was within a fraction of his personal best while also being OLDER and having a LONGER professional sprinting career than Usain Bolt.

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Now this is where everyone jumps in and says ‘Bolt is the exception to most rules on sprinting, a freak of nature so to speak, who would’ve been discarded by most coaches and pundits based on his stature’. I don’t think this cuts it either

The sad reality I’ve come to realise is, Bolt simply hasn’t been trying to run that fast anymore.

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More efficient = Less Drive

I’ve come to the conclusion that Bolt’s sprinting training has made him a far more efficient runner, but rather than it helping to produce faster times, it’s contributed towards him putting in slower ones.

You see, he now doesn’t have to work as hard to win a race, he can leave another gear at home and let his raw talent get him by. And he got away with it, right up to last week unfortunately.

When you review his races now without the rose tinted glasses, you can clearly see he’s become a caricature of his former self, more focussed on how he looks crossing the line than actually running the race.

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Throughout all his races at the last 2016  in Rio Olympics and even in the finals, he was forever trying to make eye contact with the photographers and his fellow runners, engaging in banter with them while crossing the line, even when the Gold Medal is on the line.

Heck, more articles were written about Bolt’s party regime than his performance. That’s gotta ring some alarm bells somewhere and no doubt the media would’ve pounced on it if it was anyone else.

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One could argue it’s all just in the name of entertainment, and it obviously works as I wouldn’t be writing about it otherwise.

But is that done in the spirit of athletic competitiveness?

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Winning is all that matters

Now don’t get me wrong, an athlete’s job is simply to beat the other people competing, that’s it. Whether you do a finish in 5 seconds or 30 minutes, the important thing is that you are the first across the finish line (especially when it matters like in various finals etc). So in that regards, Bolt was class and did exactly enough to get by in his races.

Why do more when you don’t have to?

Because for me, when you are at that level, it’s no longer about the winning, it’s all about the Speed.

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The need for speed

Our obsession with speed as a species is almost inherent. Since the dawn of time, we’ve been obsessed with speeds ever since we graced the tops of horses and started racing them. Wanting to go faster is simply a way of life.

Whenever a new sports car comes out, we quickly judged its value based predominantly on its maximum top speed. Manufacturers poured millions of pounds into research into creating a vehicle that is 0.2 MPH faster than its rival, all to gain that accolade of world’s faster plane/car/bike. Because the title is worth everything to them.

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I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise then that Superspeed has always been most coveted superpower and it comes as no surprised that Speedsters in all guises are my favourite types of character.

Throughout all mediums, the question that they are all dying to find out is

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How much raw untapped potential Do I have?

How far can I push my body?

‘Just how fast can I really go’

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For me, this is Big Elephant in the room.

Bolt simply doesn’t have that Drive to find this out.

He doesn’t care about how fast he can go anymore

It’d be alright if he was just another sprinter but Bolt isn’t just another athlete, He’s the fastest man who’s ever lived. With this role I feel comes the greater responsibility to put in his fastest times possible.But Bolt has no desire to realise this potential and as such, he withholds our potential as a species from all of us.

I find the entire concept completely unnatural and it irks the shit outta me that the world’s fastest man will go to his grave without ever really knowing just how fast he  could go.

And all of this simply because he doesn’t ‘have to’ try.

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What right do we have to this information?

Now is it fair for Bolt to be an ambassador for our collective human potential. I say no.

Is it fair for me to project my desires onto him in order to judge him negatively for unfulfilling them? Double no.

Is it fair to undermine his career based on anything rather than his performance on a given night. Triple no

All of this stinks of typical non-paying fanboy not getting what they want from a celebrity.

Well boo-fucking hoo to me then. It’s not like I pay his fucking Bills

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I will say this though. If you are a world record holder and advertise yourself as one, you automatically become a public commodity whether you like it or not.

For example, The world’s oldest person isn’t a position that is interviewed for and accepted. The burden of the title lays on their head whether they like it or not, and everday they represent a beacon of just how far we can carry ourselves forward, forever striving, forever growing.

If you wish to advertise yourself as the fastest man alive, you gotta pay the piper. No one asked for him to run that fast in the first place, that was a choice he dutily made all by himself. He could’ve won all those races without all that but BOLT wanted the accolade, he physically sought for it.

Now he’s trailblazed a path for us to follow but he hasn’t completely taken us to where we need to go.

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This is where I think his legacy is incomplete and he needs to be held accountable.

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Setting Examples for the rest of us.

Without Bolt’s desire to answer the question, I just don’t find him a credible role model for a child when it comes to giving it your all.

I think Doc Ock said it best in Spiderman 2

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Considering he comes from Jamaica where prospects of the average child escaping poverty are severely limited, his inability to push himself could be interpreted as a very dangerous suggestion that natural ability and complacency will always win out to hard work and effort.

Even if this holds merit in the real world and not in the fluffy bubble we maintain for our kids, is this the right message they should be hearing?

I just see this type of thing doing far more harm than good, especially in a situation where people have the opportunity to better themselves and refuse to explore it.

I mean if the world’s fastest man doesn’t want to reach their potential, why the fuck should I?

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It always comes down to Money

Now while writing this, it just struck me that perhaps Bolt never ran as fast as he could because he realised that his value wasn’t based around his current top speed, rather his potential.

The one thing that is as clear as day, in almost all his world record victories, Bolt was holding back.

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Bolt’s untapped potential has been the sole subject of multiple documentaries and news articles. Even his Wikipedia page has sections written on just how fast he could have finished certain races, had he run to the line. No other sprinter in history has this much hype surrounding their unrun times.

It is this unrealising of his potential that has been his biggest selling point. Tens of thousands continually came to see whether his next race would be the one where he let rip and set that stage alight. But it never came to be.

While some like me may see this as a negative, it’s actually a strong marketing point to kept him relevant and keeps all the cameras on him long after the race ends.

I mean think about it, when most sprinters obtain a record, its definitive, there is no real debate about how much more the could’ve given. Bolt’s prowess is so strong that even if someone beats his records, their efforts would be discarded by 8 simple worlds.

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‘Bolt would’ve gone faster if he ran properly’

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This type of trash talk was always a staple of combat sports but was mostly swept under the carpets in athletics because sprinters of different eras have always been directly comparable.

Now because Bolt never had the balls to give a race his all, He will forever cast shadows on future record holders, putting their greatness into question.

And I don’t think it’s fair to maintain that level of relevance long after you leave a sport.

That’s just cruel.

It’s a shame the Peter Pan of Athletics never made it to the finishing line as a Man.

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Oh well, I’ll always have Lion-o …

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