As Olympics Approach, A Look At The 100m Sprint

May 3, 2012
Originally published on May 9, 2012 9:43 am
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Tomorrow, as we look ahead to this summer's Olympic Games in London, we'll report on one event and the one country that's best at it. Today, a word about that event. It's the one that crowns the world's fastest human. Four years ago, in Beijing, that was a Jamaican named Usain Bolt.


SIEGEL: That was Usain Bolt's world record breaking sprint in the men's 100 meters. Even a succinct description of this race takes more time than the race itself. Usain Bolt's current world record is 9.58 seconds. Even so, in Jamaica a couple of weeks ago, a very wise old track coach told me it's actually quite a long race.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden covers track and field for the magazine and he says the 100 meter sprint enjoys a special hold on the public's imagination.

TIM LAYDEN: It captures explosiveness, speed, excitement and really that unimaginable tension that's in the air in the two or three seconds before the gun goes off. I've always likened it to being somewhat similar to the moments before the start of a heavyweight fight.

SIEGEL: Well, take me through the 100. We start with the start. And how important is that in being a great sprinter?

LAYDEN: Well, the start is extremely important. The most accepted technology in the sport now calls - they have the start and then they have what's called the drive phase, which is the next few strides after the blocks where it's the athlete's goal to not rise up to a standing position once the gun goes off, but rather to keep his shoulders low, to keep his head down and to drive, literally, for several meters out of the blocks and then gradually rise up in a part of the race that's called transition where they transition from that low drive phase to an upright running position.

And those phases, start, drive phase, transition, essentially determine where the runner will be in the race 20 or 30 meters out of the starting blocks.

SIEGEL: So the start, drive, transition. And do we have a name for phase four?

LAYDEN: Then it's simply the rest of the race and there's another point at which an athlete will transition again into a drive toward the finish line, but there comes a point in the race where every athlete will feel that, the presence of other athletes around him and the desire to get to the finish line and, at that point, he has to try and relax, hold his form, keep his shoulders relaxed and his chin down and drive toward the finish line without allowing what they call form break.

SIEGEL: The greatness of Bolt is - well, it connects with what he looks like. I mean, he's 6'5", I think. He's quite a large guy for a sprinter. Yes?

LAYDEN: Yeah. There's really never been another really fast man who's as tall as Bolt and, you know, part of that comes down to the biomechanics of the 100 meters. It's always a function of stride length and stride frequency. And at 6'5" tall, you're seeing Bolt's stride length is obviously longer than any other man who has run the 100 meters at a high level and yet his stride frequency, the number of times which he is able to get his feet up and back down onto the track, is also at the level of a man who's much shorter than he is. And, when you put those things together, you have someone who not only runs very fast, but visibly runs very fast.

And his gold medal in Beijing and his world championship in Berlin a year later are vivid examples of that in that he did not just win the race. He won them in a dominating fashion looking, as one U.S. sprinter said, like a high school runner running against grade school boys.

SIEGEL: That's Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated. Usain Bolt is just one of several Jamaican men and women who are among the world's best sprinters. Why are Jamaican sprinters so good? I went to Kingston, Jamaica, where the country's top athletes train to find out. That story tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.