On fleet street
Ten seconds is so little time, but in an event where the margins are measured in hundredths of seconds, it is still more than enough for all manner of thoughts to run through the mind. Even for the fastest men on earth, speed of thought outstrips fleetness of foot. And the one depends on the other.other Updated: Jul 22, 2012 02:25 IST
Ten seconds is so little time, but in an event where the margins are measured in hundredths of seconds, it is still more than enough for all manner of thoughts to run through the mind. Even for the fastest men on earth, speed of thought outstrips fleetness of foot. And the one depends on the other.
Now think of the men’s 100m field in the Olympics this summer. For the first time since automatic electronic timing was introduced, it will include all four of the fastest men on earth: Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell and Yohan Blake.The 2012 final may not be the fastest race in history - the weather alone could see to that - but it is bound to be the most fiercely contested.
That brings its own pressures. At the 1972 Olympics, the Ukrainian Valeriy Borzov, like Bolt in 2008, won the 100m and 200m double. In an interview recorded after his victories, Borzov revealed the favourite training exercise of his first coach, Boris Voitas.
“We made paper tubes and Voitas would order us to run 100m holding them in our teeth. The one who did not bite or squeeze the tube was considered a sprinter. The rest were considered to be simply runners. This helped me develop the main quality of a sprinter - the ability to relax.”
Tension inhibits speed. The moment a sprinter starts to worry about what the man next to him is doing, his muscles tighten and he starts to slow down. Carl Lewis was guided by the principle, taught to him by his coach Tom Tellez, that “human beings can run full speed for 10 metres”, which made it pointless to try and run flat out for the full 100. His rivals, he felt, were so obsessed with getting ahead of him at the start that they began to decelerate by the time they reached 90m, and would tighten up more as they felt Lewis come up on them.
Can’t catch meBolt has a similar approach. "Last 10 metres, you’re not going to catch me," he says. "No matter who you are, no matter what you’re doing, no matter how focused you are, no matter how ready you think you are, you’re not going to catch me."
“In the 100m,” says Lewis, “a single mistake can cost you victory.” He was not talking about technique but the negative thoughts that slip into a sprinter’s head during a race.
Bolt has never seemed to worry about anything much, least of all what anyone else is doing. Plenty has been said about the advantage his height gives him - his legs are so long that at full speed he covers 10 metres in three-and-a-half strides.
But it is Bolt’s temperament that really sets him apart. Pressure runs off him like water off wax. His shenanigans on the start line at the Beijing Olympics, when he struck poses and played up to the crowd and camera, showed a man at ease with himself and the situation he was in. His finish, when he was beating his chest as he crossed the finish line, was so insouciant that some athletes actually found it offensive.
Then Bolt lost to Blake in the 100m and 200m at the Jamaican trials. Those losses, coupled with the doubts surrounding his fitness, his false start at the 2011 world championships, and his patchy form this year, will surely have put a hefty dent in Bolt’s
At the trials there was an obvious difference in his demeanour. He did not play around on the start line, but stood stock-still, staring down the track. The happy-go-lucky attitude was gone. He looked worried.
Bolt has lost before, to Gay for instance, but he always won when it mattered most. Now, for the first time in a long time, Bolt is lining up against a man who he knows has had the beating of him in practice and competition. What kind of toll has that taken on Bolt?
Time and again in the last 12 months Bolt has said that he wants to become a “legend” at these Olympics, though most people would say he already is one. He spoke about wanting to run under 9.50. Instead he will be judged by another measure - how he handles the pressure of the competition. It could spur him on, or it could hold him back. In 16 days we will know.
Mike Estep, the man who coached Martina Navratilova during the peak of her rivalry with Chris Evert, once said: “Every Dempsey has his Tunney. Every Ali has his Frazier.” And so it goes: Senna v Prost, Palmer v Nicklaus, McEnroe v Borg, Coe v Ovett. And now Bolt v Blake.