Usain Bolt is nothing short of an Olympic phenomenon. The Jamaican sprinter won three gold medals in Beijing in 2008 and a further three at London 2012. He holds the Olympic record for the 100m, and in 2008 and 2012 he was part of the Jamaican relay teams that broke the world record for the 4x100m. The question is how does he do it?
Bolt is certainly unique. In sprinting terms he’s taller than average and while he continues to set new records, the big question is whether or not he can run even faster.
Bolt has already broken the 100m record three times and the 200m record twice, but you only have to look at some of his finishes, particularly when he often slows before the line in qualifying rounds, to see that he might be able to go even quicker still. His technique looks relaxed; playful even… so is there room for improvement?
The man himself believes he is capable of setting new standards. "I've heard that the fastest a man can go is 9.4 seconds for 100m," he said in a previous interview. "I think it's possible for me to run that."
The key to Bolt’s success, according to Michael Johnson, is his performance during the first 30m of the race, a rarity for such a tall athlete. Height is often seen as a hindrance for a sprinter. In many cases, a lower centre of gravity enables sprinters to start and reach their top speeds quicker. Bolt, who stands 1.95m, defies such conventional wisdom. Fellow sprint legends Linford Christie and Carl Lewis, who while shorter than the Jamaican were still both taller than 1.80m, overcame any height disadvantage through power and technique in the latter stages of their races.
However, both would often suffer from slow starts before overtaking their competitors. Bolt, in contrast, starts strongly. In 2008 in Beijing, during the first phase of his victory, he’s in line with his competitors until he pulls clear from around 40m. On further analysis through Bolt’s back catalogue of victories, it’s clear he has been able to keep pace with his competitors in the first phase of his races much more than Christie and Lewis ever did.
In 2009, for example, biomechanical analysis was carried out on Bolt’s split times (every 10m across 100m) and average velocity. Remarkably, Bolt was not only quicker than his nearest rival in 20m out of the 30m in the first phase; he was also quicker in nine of the ten splits. His average velocity was greater in every 10-second split, too.
And then, of course, Bolt has the power to pull away once he reaches top speed, a result of now infamous long stride. It was this that helped him move from sixth to pole position after an uncharacteristic slow start to win in London in 2012. These strides have become as much of a signature move as his ‘lightning bolt’ celebration, and one which many will expect to see once again in Rio in 2016, as the Jamaican looks to add to his gold medal tally.