The defeat of Usain Bolt at the Jamaican Trials has not changed the Olympic 100 meters. Why? Because as I’ve said before Bolt has always been beatable. It’s not easy to do, and not everyone has the ability, but it’s always been possible. It requires two things: a sprinter with serious top end speed and a killer finish; and an average/typical start by Bolt.
While the perception of Bolt over the last four years has been that he is Superman and invincible, his “defeatablility” has always been there. The issue isn’t that something has suddenly changed, but that the top sprinters don’t race enough for these things to come into play on a regular basis!
This is the first head to head for Bolt and Blake since Blake has “arrived” as an elite sprinter – about two years. Bolt and Gay have met three times in four years at this distance and sit at 2 to 1 – the only possible outcome unless one dominated the other. Bolt’s aura of invincibility has been augmented by the fact that he has twice won on the sport’s biggest stages – Beijing ‘08 and Berlin ‘09 – and both times in WR time.
But if you examine those races, in Beijing he was clearly the class of the field, as the only man able to challenge him at the time (Tyson Gay) was injured. In Berlin he benefited from perhaps the best start of his career, leading even super starter Asafa Powell at 10 meters! With his 6’5” frame (i.e. stride length) and top end speed, that race was already over. But in some ways that race prefaced yesterday’s outcome.
I say this because Bolt was clearly working on “getting out” in the rounds (knowing that Tyson Gay has “serious top end and a killer finish”) as he false started. This was a year before the implementation of the current false start rule however, so there was simply a reset of the race and there was no disqualification. That’s important because Bolt, and everyone else, were able to “hedge their bets” slightly knowing that if they were wrong, they got a second chance. That ability to “hedge” allowed Bolt to “nail” the start in the final (and get out ahead of the top end of Tyson Gay) that led to his being ahead from step one and achieve the WR 9.58 victory.
That ability to “hedge” was taken away in 2010. The result being the head to head with Tyson Gay in Stockholm that found Bolt with an “average” start, and behind Gay early. Gay being a sprinter with “serious top end and a killer finish”, was able to hold off the Big Man and achieve the win.
Bolt’s next “big race” post “false start rule change” was in Daegu, where he was to face new stud Yohan Blake – he too possessing “serious top end and a killer finish”. Bolt again was looking to “nail” the start to get out ahead of the top end of Blake – but misjudged and got the DQ. Blake running away to a clear victory in Bolt’s absence.
Which takes us to yesterday’s race – the next “big race” for Bolt. A false start in Kingston leaves the Big Man home, so there is no attempt to “hedge”. The resultant “average” start for Bolt leaves him trying to come back against the “serious top end and killer finish” of Yohan Blake. And as we all now know, Blake held him off for the PR win. Take note that Blake’s margin of victory (.11), is nearly the same as Gay’s Stockholm margin of victory (.13).
Before I go further, I’m sure there are two statements/questions on the table. One I’m sure is that some will say that Bolt has raced former WR holder Asafa Powell several times between 2008 and yesterday – inferring that those were also “big races”. I am going to disagree with the labeling of those as “big races” on two counts. One is that Powell has never shown to be a big race / big meet competitor. Two is that Powell does not fit the mold of someone able to defeat Bolt – serious top end and killer finish. Powell is just the opposite – killer start and above average top end. Which is why Bolt, like Gay, Gatlin, and Blake, has consistently run him down to defeat him in the final stages. And why in all their racing Powell has won just once, and then by a mere .01 – and that was four years ago.
The other statement/question is the matter of calling Bolt’s starts in those races “average”, because many will say that he was clearly behind. But if you take a look at Bolt’s competitive history in the event, that IS his average start. He either nails the start and runs away from the field – New York ‘08, Berlin ‘09 – or he is slightly behind the field at the start. Which is what one would expect from a 6’5” sprinter! Again, Bolt benefited from hitting his start twice while the TV cameras were running. So many might thing that that is normal when in fact it has been an anomaly.
Now Bolt isn’t your average 6’5” sprinter, because he’s got crazy turnover in those long legs – which is why he runs 9.7/9.8 on demand. That’s why he runs down your “non-studs” with ease, and when he nails the start he is capable of 9.58. But when you take a look at his top 5 times taking out the “super starts” of New York and Berlin, his top competition compares quite well:
|Usain Bolt||Tyson Gay||Yohan Blake||Asafa Powell||Justin Gatlin|
When you look at Bolt and the other potential 100 finalists in London in this light, the race looks a lot closer than what transpired in Beijing and Berlin – especially in light of the fact that the opportunity to “nail” a Berlin type start has been greatly reduced by the change in the false start rule. Bolt is still a favorite heading to London – potentially the favorite. But make no mistake, this is going to be a race – it was always going to be a race, even before yesterday.
There has been no change in the London 100. Not because of Bolt’s defeat yesterday, or the injury to Walter Dix. The loss of Dix will impact the final outcome of the 200 meters, make no mistake in that. But with all the major players in the 100 healthy and in London, Dix was not going to be a major factor. A finalist, but not a factor for the podium. His poor start takes care of that. And his strength is sustained speed, not the top end as possessed by Gay, Blake, and Bolt.
Powell has always been a threat to steal the race – barring a super start by anyone else he will lead and set the pace. But there will be more super finishers in this race than any other that Powell has ever been in – and that is not in his favor.
Blake is the young lion in the room. Fast and fearless. But he too will be facing more super finishers than he ever has in a single race.
Tyson Gay is most like Usain Bolt – differences in stature aside. He has run 9.69 with a poor start – running down Powell in Shanghai to do so. He and Bolt have the best top end speed in the event.
Justin Gatlin will be the “X” factor in this race. He doesn’t have the 9.7’s of the others, but that may be more a factor that he missed the opportunity to do so for four years. 9.80 says that he is capable of going where the other have gone. The question for me is, with his race being as “tight” as it already is, where does he squeeze out the additional time?
So my point is that this race was ALWAYS going to be a five man race. The major factor that made it closer than Berlin was not the rise of Blake and his win in Kingston, but the ruling of the IAAF! No false starts means absolutely NO room for error as Bolt found out in Daegu, and several athletes discovered in recent meets like the NCAA Championships and our own Trials this past week. While I’m not a fan of the rule for other reasons, it does mean that you sit and wait for the gun, or you’re gone – you can’t even flinch! That’s a handicap for the tall sprinters like Bolt and Ryan Bailey who need that little extra to get out ahead – because unwinding those long legs from the blocks requires just a little extra. So with this rule “big men” start like big men – like Steve Williams, Carl Lewis and Donovan Bailey. And that means running from behind. No problem in a “normal” race, but a bit more difficult when you’re running against men with “serious top end and killer finishes”.
So how do I think this will play out? I’ll tell you before the Games.