Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Who Will Be The World's Fastest Human ?

The men's 100 meters is THE glamour event at almost any track and field competition. The dragsters of track and field, they cover the length of a football field in some 9.x seconds! Hence the winner of each year's Major is dubbed "The World's Fastest Human".

As if the normal expectations for this race aren't enough, this year's rendition in Berlin is taking on EPIC proportions. Consider that this race will feature:

• The two most recent global champions, Tyson Gay ('07, Osaka) and Usain Bolt ('08, Beijing). Both will be in attendance and both are seemingly at the top of their games.

• The two most recent Athletes of the Year in the sport of track and field Usain Bolt ('08) and Tyson Gay ('07) .

• The two most recent #1 ranked athletes in the 100 meters, Usain Bolt ('08) and Tyson Gay ('07).

• Two athletes with legal 9.7's to their credit this season - Gay (9.77) and Bolt (9.79).

• Two undefeated athletes as neither Bolt nor Gay have lost this year.

• The current World Record holder (Usain Bolt) against the current American Record holder.

Having said all of that however, many are treating this race as a mismatch and foregone conclusion. But that is because memories in this sport tend to become fixed on one or two moments in time, with expectations set accordingly.

For example, Michael Johnson was, and will always be, thought of as the athlete that flashed around the Atlanta track in 19.32 seconds. Maurice Greene was burned into the consciousness of many winning in Edmonton in 9.82 while dragging a pulled muscle the final 20 meters of the race. And the world has the vision of Usain Bolt running clear of the field and thumping his chest on the way to gold in a WR 9.69 in Beijing! A vision that says to many that Bolt is invincible.

But, that vision lacks one important element - the man who 6 weeks before had run 9.77/9.85/9.68w on his way to the US title. So while nothing can take away from the stellar performance exhibited by Bolt, the absence of a healthy Tyson Gay does raise the question: What If?

By this weekend THAT question will be answered! Two days. Four rounds. One champion. And if the gods of conditions are kind, a new World Record. Such is the potential of these two sprinters.

The exploits of Usain Bolt have been well chronicled. A WR 9.72 in New York last year after only a handful of career races at the distance. Followed up with a WR 9.69 and gold in Beijing. He's had a slower start to this season and fewer races than last year, but he began peaking well late with 19.59 and 9.79 efforts in Lausanne and Paris. Both in rainy conditions.

After his superb series at last year's Trials, Tyson Gay spent most of last summer rehabbing and found himself eliminated in his semi in Beijing. Working to get back to form, Gay had a slow start to this season running a couple of 400's before opening up over 200 meters at 19.58. When he ran the 100 he ran 9.75w, 9.77 (=AR) then a final tune up of 9.79w in Stockholm before heading to Berlin. Very quietly Gay has run sub 9.80 in all of his finals when healthy over the past 14 months.

Not surprising (that Gay's times would be similar to Bolt's) when you consider that in spite of their physical differences their race patterns are almost mirror images! Let's take a closer look at these two competitors.

Usain Bolt

Strengths: At 6' 5" and very lean, Bolt has long, powerful levers. To this he adds the ability to turn over with the rapidity of a man 6' 0"/ The result is that he eats up yardage in huge, quick gulps! This gives him a wicked mid race surge and finishing power.

Usain Bolt

Weakness: Poor reaction to the gun combined with those long levers make early rapid acceleration difficult. It typically takes him 30 to 40 meters before his "overdrive" kicks in. He also has a tendency to relax / shut down at the end of races.

Tyson Gay

Strengths: Powerful foot placement and drive against the track. Also has very rapid turnover. His turnover combined with his drive gives him maximum return from the track and better "bounding" action than other sprinters. Thus though short in stature, he gets longer stride action than athletes of similar height. This plus his rate of turnover gives him a "warp drive" effect in mid race. He's also very strong around the finish line and has tremendous focus.

Tyson Gay

Weakness: Poor early acceleration and pick up. Typically takes 30 to 40 meters before his "overdrive" kicks in.

Thus, when we look at these two they are actually more similar than they are different. In addition, the race will have other factors that could affect the outcome. One is the presence of Asafa Powell. While Powell has a very poor record in Majors, he is the world's preeminent starter. As such he could become the "rabbit" in this race. His early pace and who is closest to him through 50 to 60 meters, could play a key role. This makes lane draw extremely critical - how close are Bolt and Gay to each other and who is closest to Powell. Both have displayed the ability to be unaffected by Powell's blitz starts, so proximity to him could provide the "help" needed to run a faster early race than usual.

Another key factor to this race could be the element of false starts. Both athletes are notoriously poor starters. So an advantage at the start would be beneficial to both athletes. False starts tend to nail everyone in the blocks. And starters tend to hold longer in Majors than in "Circuit" meets. This could be an advantage to the better of the poor starters.

The most important part of this race will be the section between 30 and 60 meters. This is the peak acceleration phase for both sprinters. After this point I do not believe that either athlete can run the other down without the lead athlete making a major mistake. So the race within the race should be this 30 meter segment - the sprinter that wins the interior 30 meter dual will win the race!

So who wins? For my money it's a coin flip. The man that executes best in that moment will win - I believe it's that close. I give Tyson the edge in intensity, drive and finish - if its close he's better around the finish line. I give Bolt the edge in confidence and what I'm going to call "ground eating ability" - that ability to eat up huge chunks of real estate when in full stride. But at the end of the day I think it will be weakness that determines this race. And so far this year Bolt's start has been a cut below Tyson's. So it is here that I believe the race will be decided - by the man that executes his weakness best. So I am going to hedge and say that Tyson gets the better start and thus crosses the line first - on the lean in to the tape! A narrow, very narrow victory. But then, that is how it should be with these two!

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