As I sit in anticipation of the action warming up on the track here in the next few weeks, I’m wondering if we will see anyone rise up to challenge the “Dynamic Duo” of Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay in the men’s sprints. After all, this is an off season and it’s not uncommon to see athletes make major strides when all they have to do is train and compete without the confines of worrying about being ready for one particular competition – like the Olympics or World Championships.
Of course to answer that question, one has to realize that the sprint game has changed dramatically over the last several years. The barriers of 9.80 and 19.70 which were rarely breached just as recently as the 2005, are have been run with regularity by Bolt and Gay these past few seasons.
While we have seen others making their own moves into the 9.90 and 19.80 ranges, that still leaves them gasping in the exhaust of Bolt and Gay. As I scan the annual lists of the past couple of seasons looking for potential challengers, I wonder if the rest of the world has truly been watching what has been going on in the sprints, because as happens periodically in this sport, there has been a shift in what it takes to be “elite”!
Yes, the benchmarks have changed – but has anyone asked “why”? Well I’m going to give you my assessment. You see, for the longest time speed was real easy to assess. There was a simple formula: Speed = Length x Turnover. Simply put that meant that if you wanted to run faster you either needed a longer stride to go with your leg turnover, OR you needed faster leg turnover to go with your stride. If you could somehow improve both you probably went to the head of the class!
That formula worked for eons. If you go back to my post on “fast starters” during the indoor season, they were almost all of the fast turnover variety. Rapid turnover gets up to top speed much quicker – so sprinters like Houston Mc Tear, Ben Johnson and Jon Drummond were almost always easily ahead of the competition through 60 meters – the indoor sprint. The key for them was being able to hold that turnover while holding off the sprinters with greater stride length!
Because after 60 meters the long strides of sprinters like Steve Williams, Carl Lewis and Donovan Bailey were able to eat of larger chunks of ground with much rapidity late in the race once these guys got up to speed!
So it went for decades until technology changed things. Two creations added another factor into the equation. As Mondo and PED’s made “Power” a more desirable commodity! Not that power wasn’t always there. Oh no. Bob Hayes was as powerful as they came, So were guys like Steve Williams and James Sanford. But on dirt/cinder tracks power was not your best friend. On soft surfaces that gave way power left you digging holes, not sprinting faster! Which is why “knee lift” was something preached to every sprinter. The key on a soft track was to lift the stride and reach out to gain length. Moving you forward as opposed to driving “into” the track and risking “slippage” and causing you to lose ground with each step.
But then came “artificial” surfaces. First just simple rubber composites they progressed to Tartan, Rekortan and now Mondo! Those early rubber tracks were soft. They could be run on year round, and provided a firm consistent running surface but didn’t give much back to the runner. That changed as the tracks got firmer and harder. We saw that in Tokyo in ’91 with what was the deepest 100 in history to that point as for the first time two men went under 9.90. Then we saw it again in Atlanta in ’96 as all sorts of record breaking and PR setting took place in both sprints on that track – while distance runners complained mightily about the anguish that the hard surface was playing on their feet!
Not so coincidently, as the tracks got harder we saw the size of the fastest sprinters begin to grow – as the power that they were able to “drive” into the track began to pay off huge dividends. Ben Johnson was the preview as he learned to use his power on some of the early hard surfaces. So much so that he took the WR from 9.93 to 9.83 and 9.79 in two scintillating races in Rome and Seoul in ’87/’88. Unfortunately we found out that he used PED’s to acquire that power.
None the less the stage was set as we watched the top sprinters go from the lithe frames of Calvin Smith, Stanley Floyd, Joe Deloach and Carl Lewis to the more muscular builds of Leroy Burrell, Linford Christie, Ato Boldon, Bruny Surin and Maurice Greene. Power became the name of the game. Even smallish sprinters like Frank Fredericks, Dennis Mitchell, and Tim Montgomery found themselves getting a bit thicker and stronger in an effort to keep up – Montgomery taking the Ben Johnson path to a ban from the sport.
Most of these sprinters that lead the sport heading into the New Millennium were stronger, but not any taller than their previous counterparts. So while they were affecting the turnover portion of the equation and adding a power component to it, the length factor of speed was virtually unaffected. That is until the middle of the “oughts”. Maurice Greene – the dominant force in sprinting from ’97 through ’01 got a glimpse of the future in the Olympic final of 2004.
While Greene was able to garner a very close bronze in the Athens 100, the race was dominated by large powerful sprinters as Justin Gatlin, Francis Obikwelu, and Asafa Powell were all 6 foot tall or better – adding long ground eating strides to the power component of their races. Suddenly the average height power sprinter running around 9.90 was faced with a taller counter part able to run towards 9.80.That transition became complete as Usain Bolt entered the short sprint game a couple of seasons ago – bringing his 6”5″ frame to what less than a decade before had been a “short” man’s race – with devastating effects.
So what does that all mean for this season and beyond? Well, for my two cents it means “no power, no levers, no hope”. As in if you’re not strong and you’re under 6 foot tall, or simply short of stride the 100/200 may not be your way to glory! I don’t think there’s any coincidence that we (the US) have found a bit less success internationally the past few seasons as our sprinters have gotten smaller and smaller. We are currently lead by a bevy of sprinters well under 6 feet tall as our top 100 meter sprinters on the international level behind Tyson Gay have been Ivory Williams, Doc Patton, Walter Dix, Travis Padgett, Rae Edwards, Mark Jelks and Leroy Dixon. All but Patton of the 5′ 9″ to 5′ 10″ variety. We’ve done better over 200 meters with Wallace Spearmon, Shawn Crawford, and Lashawn Merritt, but guess what? They’re 6 feet tall or better! The anomalies being Tyson Gay (just powerful) and Walter Dix (ditto when healthy as well as a turnover machine).
That’s why I have hope in young men like Ryan Bailey, Curtis Mitchell, and Torrin Lawrence. Just like basketball, height (leg length) is something you can’t teach. And in today’s sprinting stride length, and power, have become a necessary commodity.