London 2012: Can Usain Bolt Better Beijing?

‘Is that it?’  I asked my dad.  ‘Is it over?’
‘Yes, it’s over.’
I couldn’t decide who was more disappointed: my forty year-old father or my ten year-old self.

It was 27th July 1996.  A Saturday.  Linford Christie had just been disqualified from the 100 metre final at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.  At 32, Christie became the oldest man to win Olympic 100 metre gold in Barcelona four years earlier.  Just to reach a consecutive Olympic final at the grand old age of 36 was extraordinary. 

Linford Christie's disqualification in Atlanta proved that physical strength is only half the battle.

Nowadays, of course, Christie wouldn’t have been given a second chance.  As of 2010, the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) implemented a zero tolerance approach to the false start.  It was a rule that attracted heavy criticism from the athletic community, and one that came under much wider scrutiny when Usain Bolt was disqualified from the 100 metre final at last year’s World Championships in Daegu after just one false start.  No one wants to see a world-class athlete disqualified, much less Usain Bolt, who was a heavy favourite to successfully defend the title he’d won so emphatically in Berlin in 2009.  But it wasn’t to be, and the shock of Bolt’s dismissal brought back memories of crushing disappointment I felt as I watched Christie’s disqualification as that ten year-old.  However, the law is the law, and not even the great Bolt himself is above it. 

Me with Linford Christie at the Aviva Olympic Trials, Alexander Stadium, Birmingham.
But I guess the question is: can Usain Bolt keep his cool and successfully defend his Olympic 100 metre title under the more stringent false start regulations?  Only Carl Lewis has ever been able to successfully make that defence in the history of The Modern Olympics Games, winning first in Los Angeles in 1984 and following it up by denying Christie gold in Seoul four years later.  So it can be done, but even under the more lenient false start rules of yester-Olympiad, it’s only been managed once. 

Carl Lewis' dominance at the 1984 Olympics equalled that of Jesse Owens in 1936.

In the same way that Lewis and his compatriot Michael Johnson achieved gold in more than one event on the track (and in Lewis’ case, on the field as a long jumper), Bolt has in recent years swept aside the rest of the field over the two individual events he has come to make his own.  Whether this has a bearing on maintaining focus remains to be seen (this brings to mind Tyson Gay, a 100 metre specialist who desperately needs the recognition and who, despite being the second fastest man in history, remains squarely in Bolt’s rangier, more charismatic shadow), but what it does show is a versatility to which single event athletes may not have had exposure. 

Perhaps there is something about defending a 100 metre title in particular – as Bolt himself proved in Daegu and Christie before him – that stands as too much of a psychological hurdle on the unobstructed straight.  Or perhaps it’s simply about remaining cool and focused under pressure – a trait the Jamaican sprinters have every intention of upholding during this Olympic year. 

Usain Bolt's false start at the World Championships in Daegu last year.  His fellow countryman, Yohan Blake would go on to win gold.

Standing 6’5”, Bolt is exceptionally tall for a sprinter, but retaining an Olympic title is a much taller order.  It will certainly be a test of his character - something the Jamaican has in abundance.  Unlike Christie in 1996, Bolt has age on his side.  At 25 – a full 11 years younger than the Britain was in his position come the summer – he will roughly be the average age of his fellow Olympians.  What makes his presence at the London Olympics so important, however, is that this may be the last time we get to see him run again on British soil.  Due to UK tax laws, foreign sports stars are taxed on a proportion of their entire global income rather than their earnings as a result of their appearance in Britain.  Bolt had planned to run at Diamond League events held in London and Birmingham last year, but had to pull out because it would have proved too costly to compete.  

Usain Bolt not only won 100 metre and 200 metre gold in Beijing, but he smashed their respective world records.  As bold as the statement is, I firmly believe that his performance in the 100 metre final is the most impressive display of athleticism the world has ever seen. 

Bolt is arguably the best sprinter the world has ever seen, but retaining his Olympic titles is the real test.  Seeing Bolt run brings to mind something that the great Jesse Owens once said: “I let my feet spend as little time on the ground as possible. From the air, fast down, and from the ground, fast up.”  Like Owens in 1936 and Lewis in 1984, Bolt was peerless in Beijing four years ago.  Can he do it again in London?  If he waits for the gun, anything is possible.   


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