Usain Bolt stated recently that he now wants to add the 4x4 relay to his repertoire in an attempt to go for four gold medals at the London Olympic Games. The last time we saw a four medal haul at the Olympic Games was by Carl Lewis in 1984 – before that it was Jesse Owens in 1936. So it is indeed a very rare occurrence – one that requires both dominance over one’s opponents as well as a bit of luck and good fortune.
Owens was one of the most dominant athletes of his day. But in fairness to the competition, Ralph Metcalf didn’t run his best 100 in Berlin, starting very poorly – that bit of good fortune on Owens part. Lewis too was one of the most dominant athletes of his day. But again in fairness to the competition, WR holder Calvin Smith was injured just before the Trials and just missed making the 100 meter squad – and would run a windy 9.94 before the Games, as well as perform on the winning/WR setting 4x1 at the Games: similarly Mel Lattany who ran the 3nd fastest time in history to date at 9.96 in May was also injured before the Trials; and Ron Brown, who had previously beaten Carl Lewis in the 100 at the ’83 Jenner Classic (10.02w to 10.03w) would be injured prior to the Games and was not at his best in Los Angeles – all contributed to the good fortune on Lewis’ part.
The last time any athlete attempted to win more than three medals was Marion Jones’ “Drive for Five” at the Sydney Games of 2000. She won the 100/200 double and ran a leg on the victorious 4x4. But she couldn’t find her form in the long jump finishing in the bronze position; and injury to teammate Inger Miller left her off the 4x1 and doomed the team to bronze there as well – showing just how quickly poor fortune can derail the medal hunt.
I bring these things up, because even for the most dominant of athletes the path to gold can be tenuous, and while Bolt was certainly more than dominant in Beijing, the landscape for 2012 has already changed dramatically.
In Beijing, Bolt was the beneficiary of some of that Carl Lewis good fortune as his chief rival and previous year’s double World Champion, Tyson Gay, fell to injury at the U.S. Trials. With no one else remotely in the same zip code as Bolt & Gay in the sprints in 2008, Bolt was left with no resistance on his way to romps in both sprints and the 4x1. Four years later that scenario appears to have changed dramatically.
First there is the status of Tyson Gay. Fighting through injuries in ‘09/’10/’11 he finally went under the knife last year to take care of his problems. From everything I have heard he is coming along nicely and should be competing injury free for the first time since the ’07 season – a season in which he won three gold medals himself. And while fighting through injuries the past few seasons he has still managed to set new PR’s of 9.69, 19.58, and 44.86. Better is expected in 2012.
Then there has been the development of Yohan Blake, last year’s World Champion in the 100 meters. With Bolt out of the final due to his false start, Blake ran through the field on his way to a clear victory. As impressive as that was however, he really turned heads with his season ending 19.26 to win the 200 in Brussels – the #2 time in history and only .07 off of Bolt’s WR! At 21 years of age, Blake is just about in the same spot Bolt was entering the 2008 season – only significantly faster across the board.
That brings me to another young man with tremendous upside potential – Ryan Bailey. The 22 year old Bailey is a year older than Bolt was entering the Olympic year of ’08 but has bests of 9.88/20.10 in spite of missing the 2011 season to injury. Bailey has two things going for him as he enters the Olympic season however. One is that he brings the tall sprint frame that Bolt has made famous – 6’ 4” tall and extremely coordinated. As a matter of fact looking at football stars such as Calvin “Megatron” Johnson (6’ 5”), Brandon Marshall (6’ 4”), Antonio Gates (6’4”), and Kellen Winslow (6’ 4”) tall is the new athletic! The second thing he has going for him is his new choice in coaches – sprint guru John Smith. As fast as Bailey has been to date, his start has been horrible and he has had difficulty staying healthy. Smith teaches the most efficient start technique in sprinting history, the Drive Phase, and has shown throughout his history to be able to keep his athletes healthy and fit – his latest being Daegu sprint and hurdle champions Carmelita Jeter and Jason Richardson. And did I mention he coached multiple World and Olympic champion Maurice Greene? Bailey should benefit greatly from Smith’s tutelage.
Also joining Smith’s camp is Daegu double silver medalist Walter Dix. Dix’ silver medal double is a follow up on his double bronze medal performance in Beijing. Like Bailey, however, he has done so in spite of flaws within his race – most notably his first 40 meters. So like Bailey, he should benefit greatly from Smith’s coaching acumen and could see significant improvement on his already impressive PR’s of 9.88 & 19.53!
There are two other sprinters worth noting in this conversation. In the 200 meters there is Wallace Spearmon – a perennial medalist and finalist throughout the last half decade. Spearmon sports a 200 meter PR of 19.65, but has battled with injuries for the last several seasons – yet ran 19.79 in ’10 coming off surgery the previous season. Spearmon is significant because before the injuries set in HE was the dominant 200 man in the world, consistently beating both Bolt and Gay, and healthy he has the best closing speed in the event. Good health and a better bend and Spearmon is a factor and in the conversation.
The other sprinter of note is former 100 meter WR holder Asafa Powell. Powell has run sub10 more times than any other sprinter in history (over 70 and counting). His problem has never been speed, but competing against the best on the brightest stages – Worlds and Olympics. Powell was in the championship runs of Gay (’07) and Bolt (‘08/’09) coming 3rd, 5th and 3rd. Should Powell find his nerve in London, he could become the factor many have long waited to see.
Of course, as Marion Jones discovered, when chasing a dream as lofty as four gold medals, there are some things that are out of one’s control – the relays. And in Bolt’s case half of the desired four gold will be dependent on his teammates. The 4x1 has proven to be a gold mine for Jamaica in the last three majors – in part because they have run very fast, but also in part because of failure on the part of U.S. squads. The lesson here being that just as U.S. squads have come away empty handed due to not getting that stick around the track, the potential is always there. The Jamaican women found this out in Beijing when they took to the track a heavy favorite with the U.S. women having left the baton on the track, when they too failed to finish in the final and watched inferior teams pick up the hardware. Speed is important, but the 4x1 is ultimately about moving the stick. By the way, the last time that the U.S. squad got the stick around the track they won gold ahead of Jamaica – who had both Asafa Powell and Usain Bolt!
But perhaps the greatest stumbling block in the path to four gold medals is the event that Bolt now wants to add – the 4x4. Entering the final in Daegu with perhaps the weakest squad the U.S. has ever put on the track for a Major championship, the team still emerged victorious by a half second – extending a winning streak in the event to fifteen straight Major wins going back twenty years – the most dominant record in any event over the last two decades! During the same time frame the closest Jamaica has come to the top of the podium was a silver behind the U.S. in ’95 (2:57.32 to 2:59.88), with nine bronze medal finishes in ’91, ‘96’, ’97, ’99, ’00, ’01, ’03, ’05, & ’11. With the clearance of LaShawn Merritt for London, the impending return to form of Jeremy Wariner, and the usual emergence of new 400 talent, I would expect the U.S. squad in London to be much stronger than the team that returned home with gold this year – making for a very tough row to hoe for any other team looking to take the top of the London victory stand – and making for a very rough path for four gold medals for any sprinter in London.
There is something magical about Olympic seasons, as they bring out the best in the world’s athletes. Good athletes become great, just ask Donovan Bailey, Michael Johnson, or even Usain Bolt himself did in the past. And entering this Olympic year there is a preponderance of sprint talent waiting for its chance at greatness. Many of whom I outlined above, some of whom will emerge that we never expected to be in the hunt – that’s the way of the sport.
Bolt’s pursuit of four gold medals will be a much watched story of 2012, just as Lewis’ was in ’84 and Jones’ was in ’00. Will he emerge as Lewis or Jones, only time will tell. One thing is for certain, given the varied stories that will make up the sprints in the Olympic season, there will be much to watch and talk about. I wish Bolt and his competitors Godspeed.