Bolt's ready to race towards new frontiers
After the Jamaican smashed his own two world records this week, Simon Turnbull asks if the 400m should be his next target
Saturday 22 August 2009
Berliners were shaken from their sleep early yesterday by the sound of thunderbolts cracking in the leaden, electric skies above the German capital.
At the athletes' hotel on the south side of the city, Usain Bolt was keeping his head down for what he hoped would be a long day's slumber. Having produced another electrifying jolt on the blue Olympiastadion track on Thursday evening, his only wish for his 23rd birthday was to catch up on his sleep and to recharge those superhuman batteries.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world was coming to terms with the Jamaican's latest stunning feat. It was one thing to have smashed his 100m world record to smithereens last Sunday evening. Having slowed down to celebrate en route to his 9.69sec clocking at the Beijing Olympics last summer, there was always likely to be room for improvement on the World Championship stage here, even if no-one quite expected the quantum leap to 9.58sec. It was another thing entirely, though, for Bolt to destroy his 200m record by the same emphatic margin.
After all, he had pushed himself all the way in Beijing to make a 0.02sec dent in Michael Johnson's 12-year-old mark with a time of 19.30sec. And he had missed several weeks of vital bend practice and speed endurance training after stepping on to some thorns when he overturned his BMW M3 in May. But, then, there has never been a human speed machine with anything like the high performance capacity of the Lightning Bolt. The question in the aftermath of his latest barrier-obliterating achievement was: how fast might he go in the 200m with a block of uninterrupted bend work and speed endurance training behind him? "I don't know what the limits are for the 200m," Bolt said, shrugging his shoulders. "Anything is possible. I didn't think I could run 19.19sec."
Considering that Bolt's 100m time, 9.58sec, equates to a 19.08sec 200m run on the International Association of Athletics Federations' Scoring Tables, it would not be unreasonable to expect another chunk might go, given more suitable conditioning for the longer event, and a fairer following wind. Bolt had a wind of plus 0.3 metres-per-second at his back on Thursday. Had the breeze been closer to the allowable two metres-per-second limit, he could conceivably have broken 19 seconds. "I don't know," Bolt said, when the suggestion was put to him. "I guess maybe."
Sooner or later, Bolt is going to be close to his limit in both the 100m and 200m. At the rate he is shifting, he could quite possibly get there by the time he has defended his World Championship crowns at Daegu in South Korea in 2011. He will have just turned 25.
The obvious temptation at that point would be to turn to the new challenge of the 400m, or possibly to embrace it alongside both the 100m and 200m or just the 200m. For the London Olympics of 2012, that is the big decision to be made by the man who spends his summers based in the south west of the English capital for the European track season.
"I keep telling people my main aim is to become a legend," Bolt said before leaving the Olympiastadion on Thursday night. At 23, he is already the fastest ever man by some distance; the next quickest to him at 100m is Tyson Gay with 9.71sec and at 200m Johnson with 19.32sec. He is also the first sprinter to break both the 100m and 200m world records on more than one occasion and the first to hold the World Championship and Olympic titles at both distances. No man has ever broken the 100m, 200m and 400m world records.
As Bolt runs out of new frontiers at the shorter distances, the quarter-mile will inevitably loom ever larger on his horizon. Back in 2002, when he started to emerge as a teenage sensation, he won the 400m as well as the 200m at the Central American Youth Championships. He was also a member of the silver medal-winning Jamaican 4 x 400m relay quartet at the World Junior Championships on home soil in Kingston.
With his 6ft 5in frame and prodigious stride, the coltish Bolt was compared to Arthur Wint, the 6ft 4in Jamaican who won the 400m title at the 1948 Olympics at Wembley. He was also seen as the natural successor to Johnson, the Texan who struck Olympic gold at 200m and 400m at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and whose 200m world record was eclipsed by Bolt in Beijing, but whose 400m world record has stood unchallenged at 43.18sec since the 1999 World Championships in Seville.
"Could he break the world record at 400m?" Johnson pondered yesterday. "It's certainly possible. I don't think he'd be able to go straight into the 400m like he did with the 100m last year, when he had raced only a few times before he broke the world record. With the 400m it takes races and experience to do that. It's a very different type of event to the 100m and the 200m.
"He is six foot, five inches tall and has an extra long stride. Unlike many with those characteristics he is extremely fast, but even if you put those two together that is not enough to make an impact in the 400m. You have to be able to strengthen up. It's a mixture of speed and endurance. If he's willing to put in the work then he can do it eventually."
Whether Bolt is willing to do that remains to be seen. "I'm not going to race the 400m unless my coach gives me a really good reason to do it," he said. On that score, Glen Mills, the sprint guru who guides Bolt, has spoken of his charge being capable of breaking Johnson's world record and of long-term plans to have a serious crack at the one-lap event. Meanwhile, having mused on Thursday night about being "knighthooded" by the Queen, there was no sign of a birthday honour yesterday for the 23-year-old king of track and field.
Greatest of all time: Bolt joins hallowed company
Sharecropper's son from Alabama won four gold medals at Berlin Olympics in 1936. Equalled one world record (100 yards) and broke three others (long jump, 220yds and 220yds hurdles) in 45 minutes at a meet in 1935.
Matched Owens' Olympic feat in Los Angeles in 1984, winning the 100m, 200m, long jump and 4 x 100m relay. He won nine Olympic gold medals in all. In Atlanta in 1996 he won the long jump for a fourth successive time.
'The Flying Dutchwoman' was the star of the 1948 Olympics in London, winning four of the seven events on the track and field programme. Voted Female Athlete of the 20th Century by the IAAF.
* Emil Zatopek
The Czech won Olympic 10,000m gold and 5,000m silver at London in 1948. In Helsinki in 1952 he won the 10,000m and 5,000m and then stormed to victory in the marathon on his debut at the 26.2 mile distance.
Quick off the mark How a star first shone
The Independent's Simon Turnbull was the first British journalist to write about Usain Bolt, six years ago. On 17 August, 2003, Turnbull wrote of the unknown 16-year-old Jamaican "Remember the name, you are likely to hear a lot more of it."
The hype around the sprinter caused Michael Johnson, whose 200m world record Bolt beat this week, to warn "We must not to put too much pressure on him. It's about what he does five years down the line."
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