Usain Bolt’s ultimate dream is a sub-19 second 200m

Usain Bolt made it clear while speaking on Tuesday that this year’s Olympic Games in Rio will be his last.

The Jamaican superstar won gold at both 100m and 200m at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, the first man in history to claim the sprint double at consecutive Games.

He also won 4x100m relay gold at both Games, and will attempt to win three golds for the third time running – something he described as his “biggest dream at the Olympics”.

But doing so isn’t his only dream: Bolt admits that what he wants most of all is to break the 19-second mark for the 200m, an achievement that would have seemed unfathomable a couple of decades ago, when the record stood not much under 20 seconds.

So can he do it? Let’s take a look.

Bolt

BOLT’S BRAVADO

“I’ve said the only big thing, big time I want to run is the 200 metres,” said Bolt on Tuesday.

“I’d love to try to go sub-19. That’s the only thing I would really, really want because that’s one of my goals.

“I’ve always talked about and always wanted it so for me, that’s something I look forward to.”

He has indeed spoken about it before, and in 2013 even described what he feels needs to happen to crack the mark.

“It would require a technically almost perfect race, and for the weather conditions to be good,” he said.

“But I’m focused on getting myself in a physical condition where I’m capable of doing it.”

200M: THE TOUGHEST RECORD IN SPRINTING?

Usain Bolt first claimed the 200m world record at the 2008 Olympics, his run of 19.30 seconds nipping just 0.02 seconds off Michael Johnson’s previous mark of 19.32.

That run came exactly 12 years after Johnson’s effort: the American’s record run was produced at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

And back then, Johnson’s run was – appropriately, perhaps – a lightning bolt out of nowhere.

Bolt_records

Johnson ran 200m and 400m rather than 100m and 200m, and was on top of the world in August of 1996. Just a few months earlier, he’d become the man to finally break the long-standing record of Italy’s Petro Mennea, Johnson’s time of 19.66 just pipping Mennea’s 19.72.

Mennea had set his record almost two decades earlier in the thin atmosphere of Mexico City in September 1979, breaking an 11-year-old record of 19.83 by Tommie Smith – also set in Mexico.

Pietro Mennea
Pietro Mennea – AFP

Smith’s was the first mark established in the electronic timing era. Since then, the record has been beaten just five times in almost 40 years.

By contrast, the 100m record has been lowered almost 20 times in the same period.

Why is that? Theories abound, but it’s believed to be a combination of factors. As well as a perfect start and a perfect run, a record also needs the athlete to have a favourable draw so as to avoid having to run too tight a bend while also having competitive athletes on the outside to help aid the chase. Wind will also be a factor: Smith, Mennea and Johnson all had healthy tailwinds on the straight (+1.8m/s in Mennea’s case, only just inside the allowable limit of +2m/s). That said, Bolt had no such help: both his 200m records were set with a slight headwind.

HOW BOLT BEAT THE RECORD BEFORE

Bolt had been relatively anonymous before the 2008 Olympics, but was already a global sensation by the time he lined up for the 200m final that year having smashed the 100m world record earlier in the event. So when he clocked 19.30, the world was amazed and delighted, though not surprised.

A year later, at the World Championships in Berlin, the same pattern was followed. In the 100m Bolt had beaten the 9.6-second mark with his stunning run of 9.58m in the final, a time he clocked despite appearing to ease off slightly in the closing metres.

Usain Bolt's 100m record in Berlin
Usain Bolt’s 100m record in Berlin – Other Agency

That led to all manner of wild claims about how low Bolt could eventually go, considering how fast he was at what was – in sprinter’s terms – a relatively young age.

So when he turned in a new record of 19.19 in the 200m final, it was less a coronation and more of a confirmation of what we already knew – or thought we knew. Back then you’d been looked at like a lunatic if you’d suggested that Bolt would fail to break 9.5 seconds in the 100m and 19 seconds in the 200m.

Indeed, in 2011 no less an authority than Michael Johnson himself said that he was “certain he [Bolt] can go under 19 seconds”. But those predictions haven’t quite panned out.

EARLY DECLINE?

The seasons following the 2009 World Championships were slightly disappointing for Bolt, and athletics as a whole. His false start in the 100m final at the 2011 World Championships robbed the world of a chance to see him have a crack at the record once again, and there was mild disappointment once again in the 200m final when he clocked a 19.40 winning time.

The reaction to that shows how absurd things have become. Bolt’s run that day remains the sixth-fastest in history, but fans convinced of his deity were dismayed to see him sliding in the wrong direction – particularly when Yohan Blake eclipsed the world record holder with a run of 19.26 seconds in Brussels a few weeks later. (The less said about Blake’s career since then, the better.)

Yohan Blake Usain Blake Jamaica
Yohan Blake Usain Blake Jamaica – Reuters

Since then, any thoughts of beating the record have seemed far-fetched. Even matching it has seemed out of reach – indeed, Bolt has never beaten the 19.3 mark since that day in Berlin nearly seven years ago.

Indeed, since the 2011 World Championships he’s only ever broken the 19.5 second mark once: in the 200m final at London 2012. And as the graph below shows, Bolt’s season’s bests in the 200m are steadily getting slower rather than quicker.

THREE REASONS WHY HE CAN DO IT

There’s no definite proof – yet – that Bolt has peaked

It’s unusual for a sprinter to peak so young. Bolt’s time of 19.19 in Berlin was set the day before his 23rd birthday; Johnson’s career best came a few weeks before he turned 29, while Mennea was 27 at the time of his record. Justin Gatlin, the world’s quickest and most consistent sprinter last season, turned 34 last month.

Bolt turns 30 this August, so there’s no reason to think that he should be any slower than he was in his prime, even though the stats suggest that he hit his own personal glass ceiling many years ago. It’s certainly possible that his growing celebrity didn’t help him focus to perform at his utmost. And in a sense, he hasn’t needed to – he’s won everything there is to win regardless.

The Gatlin rivalry and the Olympic boost

Bolt might have run much of his career at 95%, but when big challenges have come up he’s always found a way to get the job done. The motivation of securing a second consecutive Olympic sprint double in 2012 saw him produced his best season – and quickest times – since his 2009 peak, and no doubt he’ll be throwing everything at it once again.

But the Gatlin effect could be even more important. The drug-shamed American was far and away the world’s best sprinter last year, clocking superb times at every meeting he went to while Bolt – whose season’s preparations were disrupted by injury – looked in some of the worst form of his life.

Silver medallist USA's Justin Gatlin, gold medallist Jamaica's Usain Bolt, bronze medallists USA's Trayvon Bromell and Canada's Andre De Grasse pose with their medals on the podium during the victory ceremony for the men's 100 metres athletics event at t
Silver medallist USA’s Justin Gatlin, gold medallist Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, bronze medallists USA’s Trayvon Bromell and Canada’s Andre De Grasse pose with their medals on the podium during the victory ceremony for the men’s 100 metres athletics event at t – AFP

He can switch the emphasis of his training from 100m to 200m

The lion’s share of the rewards for a sprinter come for those who strike glory at 100m, not 200m, and Bolt has never denied that his training his been targeted specifically at getting himself in the best possible shape for the shorter distance.

It’ll be tough to change that focus, however, at least for this season. This summer, he knows full well that he will face heavy competition in the 100m, but that the 200m is likely to be his for the taking. Given that the triple-triple is in the offing, we might well see Bolt throw everything at holding off Gatlin in the 100m this summer, and then switch his focus to the 200m for his World Championships swansong in London in 2017. And if he does so, then he could get back into world record shape.

Usain Bolt of Jamaica runs on his way to winning his 100m heat round 1 during the London 2012 Olympic Games (Reuters)
Usain Bolt of Jamaica runs on his way to winning his 100m heat round 1 during the London 2012 Olympic Games (Reuters) – Reuters

WORLD RECORD, OR SUB-19 SECONDS?

We all know Bolt talks a good game and has unashamedly grand ambitions – playing for Manchester United being just one of them.

If we accept that he has a shot at getting back to his best-ever form, and does amend his training to focus more on the 200m, then matching his world record pace will absolutely be possible.

Shaving two tenths of a second off a sprint, however? That seems a vast amount. And if we were talking about the 100m, then it would be far too much to ask.

But the 200m is different. There are more variables at work, and while that means there’s more to go wrong it also means there is more potential to find extra time.

And look at those previous record runs, above: while the 100m world record has almost always been lowered in hundredths, but the 200m tends to get lowered in tenths.

Michael Johnson celebrates his world record time in the 200m
Michael Johnson celebrates his world record time in the 200m – Reuters

Consider, too, Bolt’s words after his 19.19 run in Berlin:

” I never expected a world record tonight. I was really tired… It wasn’t a good race but it was a fast one… I was too upright.”

In other words, even that astonishing run was far from the “perfect” race Bolt described.

Nor were the conditions perfect: he actually battled with a slight headwind of -0.3m/s that day, while his 19.30 in Beijing a year earlier was run into a -0.9m/s wind.

HOW FAST COULD BOLT BE IN THE PERFECT RACE?

So if he’d not been “tired”, and not run “too upright”, he might well have been able to shave off the extra 0.05.

Can he do it then? It’ll need a lot of planets to come into alignment, so to speak, and he’s a lot to prove if he’s to have a chance over the final 18 months of his career that remain between now and London 2017. But the answer to that question is a definite ‘yes’.

Will he do it, though? Somehow, it just seems inconceivable. It feels as if he’s a busted flush, a man who’ll be lucky to retain his gold medals and for whom talk of records is just PR.

Then again, if Bolt had worried about what is and isn’t conceivable in the world of athletics then he’d not have achieved half of what he has.

All he’s done, quite rightly, is focus on running as fast as he possibly can. And even the man himself doesn’t know how fast that might yet prove to be.

Usain Bolt's famous lightning photo

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