2008 Olympics: Usain’s Insane 100m


Well, by now everyone in the world knows that Usaine Bolt is not a human being. At least not by the standards we have been using for the last couple millennium. His 100m performance of 9.69 was just mind-boggling. 9.69 beat Bolt’s previous world record by 0.03 seconds and is faster than the WR of just last year by 0.05 seconds. That’s like a swimmer breaking a world record by 4 seconds…never mind, bad example. What was even more impressive than the time though was the manner in which he did it and the magnitude of the victory. I think we all saw how he just ANNIHILATED the field. Toyed with them really. He basically shut it down at 75m and still won by about 3m despite putting his hands out, bumping his chest a couple times, and then stopping to sing a little Bob Marley and the Wailers. Let’s take a look at some of the aspects of this amazing performance.

Ok. Where to start? Why not the beginning! Let’s take a look at the times for each 10m segment. First off, contrary to popular belief, Usain shows that he actually has awesome acceleration abilities. While he may not have been the best in the field, he was certainly no slouch over 30m or even the first 20m. In fact, even his 10m is pretty astounding. When you factor out Bolt’s pedestrian reaction time (0.165), Bolt actually ran the first 10m faster than Ben Johnson ran his first 10m in his 1988 (1.70 or a cumulative time of 1.83 with a 0.132 reaction time). What’s astounding about this is that Ben is widely regarded as the best starter of all time AND big men aren’t supposed to be able to accelerate as well as their shorter compatriots. So much for that. At 30m, Usain would actually be 0.02 ahead of Johnson but what’s even more mind boggling is that if we again take out their reaction times and just look at their running splits, Bolt ran the first 30m 0.05 faster than Ben. To give another perspective, when Donovan Bailey was training at LSU, he timed a 3.79 second 30m with a touchpad and timing gates (no reaction time). Bolt ran faster than that with a bad reaction time.

As the race continues, things just got worse for Bolt’s competitors as he achieved velocities that up until Saturday were reserved solely for motorized vehicles and quadrupedal animals. Between 50m and 60m Bolt ran 12.20 m/s. That’s just a hair under 44 km / hour. For you metric-phobes…that’s about 27.3 mph. That’s a higher top end speed than Lewis, Johnson, Bailey, or Powell. AND HE MAINTAINED IT FOR 30m despite putting his hands at his side for about 12m of that peak velocity segment. This leads me to believe that he actually didn’t hit his true top-end velocity. Now, make sure you understand the difference between peak and top-end velocity or this will get confusing- by peak velocity I’m referring to the highest recorded velocity value that he achieved in the race (12.20 m/s); when I refer top-end velocity I’m talking about the highest velocity value that he is actually capable of achieving. I think he was actually capable of running about 0.01 to 0.02 seconds faster between 60-70m because:

  1. Throughout history, taller runner have typically hit top end speed later and have been able to maintain it longer than their shorter counterparts. In most sprinters over 6’2, 60-65m seems to be the sweet spot for hitting top end speed.
  2. The fact that he was able to maintain his peak (although likely not top-end) velocity for 30m is something that really has never been demonstrated with the exception of perhaps Powell.

When we combine these two points, we see that he hit his peak velocity earlier than would be expected and maintained it longer than what we know is physiologically possible.

Now let’s look at what went on as Bolt shut it down at about 80m. By my count, he took 7-8 steps (out of 41 total in the race) in deceleration mode before reaching the finish line 2-3m ahead of his closest competitors. It was right at about 80m that Bolt extended his arms out to the side as if to say, mia gwan tro da chute fa tek time to slow (translation- Dang I better throw out the parachute or I might not be able to slow down). How much did it hurt him? While it’s tough to say it hurt him a ton in the 80-90m segment, it’s painfully obvious that it significantly affected his last 10m. The first question is, why didn’t it affect his time more during the 80-90m segment? Well the best explanation for that is offered by Newtonian Mechanics, specifically, good ol’ Isaac’s First Law which states that a body at rest or in motion will tend to stay at rest or in motion until acted on by an external force. In this case, the extremely massive Usain had developed tremendous momentum values and despite his best efforts, the effects of his superb deceleration mechanics, wind resistance, and friction on the ground took some time to take affect. But they did. Oh boy they did. The 0.07s dropoff in 10m split time from the 80-90m segment to the 90m-100m segment shows that Usain was really in intentional deceleration mode. Normally, an athlete of similar caliber would have dropoffs of 0.03 to 0.06s.

So what was Usain capable of? I’d guess that if he had actually hit his top-end velocity he would have picked up 0.01s from 60-70m (running 0.81s for that 10m segment) and if he had run that race through the line he’d pick up another 0.05s from 90-100m. That would put him at 9.63. Add a well timed lean at the finish with a torso as long as Bolt’s and that gets us to 9.62. And while we’re at it….tack on a better than poor reaction time (0.145 vs. the 0.165 that Bolt turned in) and his time goes down to 9.60 seconds. And since we wouldn’t be satisfied with just an average start, let’s give him a great reaction time (0.115 seconds) so he can walk away with a solid 9.58 second 100m time.

If you can’t run sub 9.60 right now you aren’t beating Bolt.