Why Usain Bolt Is An Unbeatable Legend

This is an extraordinary career that is coming to a close and we are very excited, of course, that that career will close fittingly in a World Championships stadium. If you look at his record, everywhere and everything that he (Bolt) has done, he has always been the best.” – IAAF President Sebastian Coe
Sebastian Coe’s sentiments are reflective of the entire sporting world’s feelings about this modern-day champion. Holder of the world record for the 100 metres and the most famous face in athletics today, Usain Bolt will be seen in international competition for the last time in London this August.
The fastest man on the planet – ever – has come to this point due to a freak convergence of raw talents and dedication that few will be able to attain again.
Why is this the case? Let’s start with Bolt’s genetic inheritance. One reason why so many Jamaican sprinters are so quick is because they have such symmetrical knee structures. One study found that Jamaicans tend to have much more symmetry in their joints than do their European counterparts. But Bolt has one further advantage in that his natural symmetry had to be reinforced at an early age. In his teens, it was discovered that Bolt had a mild case of scoliosis, a spinal condition that results in curvature of the spine. If he had not been diagnosed, not only would his back been curved but one leg may have grown longer in an attempt to naturally compensate for the condition.
Because he had to undergo treatment for the condition, Bolt was forced to conduct exercises that helped define the symmetry of his body. Moreover, the therapy used to counter this issue involved developing his core strength, which is so vital for sprinters.
Then there is his height. Conventional wisdom states that taller runners cannot get the same force as more compact ones. At 6’5, Bolt is the tallest sprinter in the history of the sport. And as its fastest, sports scientists have been forced to re-think this theory. One reason for his height being an advantage is that he has a greater skin surface than other racers. This has the effect that he can disperse heat from the body faster and more efficiently, thereby cooling his body and channelling more energy into his running.
Bolt’s height naturally has influenced his running style, which sees an intersection between physiology and technique. Bolt could always run, and was always quick, but tiny adjustments to his style have been conscious decisions and have had significant impacts.
Central to his speed is his stride. In London 2012, Bolt completed the 100 metres with a mere 41 steps. His runner up, Yohan Blake, needed 46. Stride is perhaps that biggest difference between amateur and professional sprinters. Speed is not down to how fast you swing your legs, it is about the amount of distance covered with each swing of the leg. Basically, Bolt spends less time on the ground than any other runner: over 60% of his race is spent in the air.
This long stride should, technically, have a downside. People like to find fault, and if Bolt has one, it is said to be his slow starts. In order to build acceleration, shorter steps are needed at the beginning of the race. Bolt tends not to flash off the blocks, and certainly most of his winning happens after the 60 metre line. But this perceived disadvantage is minimal in the extreme. In fact, back in London, he was faster off the blocks by 0.014 seconds than Blake.
Returning to the 60-metre mark, it is at this point where Bolt actually delivers the speeds that no man has ever achieved. For just 1.61 seconds, Usain Bolt runs at a speed of 27.79mph. This taps out at the 80 metre mark, but by then, the race is usually over. Part of this is stride length, part raw power. It is estimated that his foot explodes off the ground with more than 1000 pounds of force, which is double that of most other people.
Such is the fascination with his running that scientists even look at the angle of his body when racing. One study claims that even more central to his incredible speed than his stride is his use of “gravitational torque”. This is essentially the use of momentum caused by a falling forward of the body. While he may look gracefully aligned in his races, Bolt’s body angle can be shifted forwards by as much as 22 degrees.
Finally, Bolt’s success could only be gained through a rigorous training program. He may be singularly gifted for sprinting physically, but without training he would be at the back of the pack.
It is unclear how many hours he works out on the track, but his regime seems to involve much more than repeated sprints. Weighted runs are a major part of his training as he looks to build his quads, glutes and posterior chain. When he hits the gym, he works his entire body, including exercises that don’t naturally seem to support sprinting, such as bicep curls. Bolt is aware that his whole body is part of the system.
Usain Bolt’s record will be beaten one day. Not necessarily because there will be a better runner, but factors like improved technology will always help future athletes shave off milliseconds. Bolt himself has been the beneficiary of developments in training, nutrition and equipment. But this is unlikely to happen soon, because, with Bolt, it really seems like the stars have aligned.
So when Bolt runs his final 100 metres at the IAAP World Championship, it should be compulsory viewing, and not just for sports lovers. It will be the last time we get to see such physical exceptionalism married to such iron-willed determination.
“I was given a gift and that’s what I do,” – Usain Bolt.