I was clearing out my emails in runblogrun and found this thoughtful commentary on how to
understand the Tyson Gay versus Usain Bolt race in Stockholm. Written by Conway Hill on his blog, The view from the Finish Line, this column, in my mind, puts the race in its’ proper perspective.
In the days since Tyson’ Gay’s “upset” victory over Usain Bolt, much has been written and said. From message board arguments, to newspaper articles, to other bloggers. Everyone has been trying to “figure out” and/or “explain” how the “unbeatable” Usain Bolt lost to Tyson Gay. I’ve seen everything from “Bolt didn’t take Gay seriously”; to “Bolt wasn’t trying”‘ to Bolt was out of shape”; to “the race didn’t matter”.
I’m going to chalk up most of the post race chatter to either youth – haven’t been watching the sport very long). Nationalism – we all like to think “our” athletes are unbeatable). Fanaticism – fans sometimes get so wrapped up in their athletes they refuse to believe anything negative can happen. Media Hype – the media loves to build up individuals and teams to seem unbeatable. Because the reality of Stockholm, and all the races that have and will take place this year, is that they are not some Electronic Arts video game with artificial characters taking part, but real flesh and blood individuals competing against each other – and all real people are beatable.
Let’s start with world record holders. World record holders get beat sometimes. Since the first auto timed world record in the 100 was set in Mexico City in 1968 every world record holder has been beaten. Jim Hines, Calvin Smith, Ben Johnson (later taken away), Carl Lewis, Leroy Burrell, Donovan Bailey, Maurice Greene, Tim Montgomery, Asafa Powell, and now Usain Bolt. Every last one was beaten while holding the WR. All except Ben Johnson who tested positive just after, and he was beaten in Zurich just before his record setting run. And, interestingly enough, neither Smith, Lewis, Burrell, Bailey, Montgomery, or Powell won a major championship while holding the WR. So for those with short memories, being the world record holder is no guarantee of victory.
Neither is being seemingly “invincible”. Edwin Moses met his “Waterloo” in Madrid after dominating the 400 hurdles without a loss in 122 straight races – then lost gold in Rome. Carl Lewis was the most dominant long jumper we’ve ever seen winning in Helsinki, Los Angeles, Rome, and Seoul before setting his lifetime best in the event in Tokyo – while losing! Michael Johnson ran a stunning 19.32 in Atlanta, then ran a match race against Donovan Bailey over 150 and lost. There are many, many others, but the point is simple – great athletes lose. Primarily because the competitions aren’t video games. And in real life you have to factor in the heart, desire, and competitive nature of the competition. Andre Phillips got tired of losing to Edwin Moses – so he worked to try and change that paradigm. Same for Mike Powell when it came to Carl Lewis – he wanted BADLY to turn the tables. And Donovan Bailey was out to prove that it was the 100 WR holder and not the 200 WR holder that was indeed the world’s fastest man!
Former Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjonovich once said “never underestimate the heart of a champion” and Winston Churchill once said “never, never, never give up”. Such is the nature of human beings that some refuse to be down for long. To date the greatest 100 meter runner in history, Maurice Greene (Bolt has a few more titles to win) rose up from the depths of being defeated. By contrast, multiple record setters Leroy Burrell and Asafa Powell, were unable to find victory when it mattered most. One of my favorite sayings (at least I think I said it first) is “it ain’t how fast you run, it’s when you run fast”. Meaning that regardless of how fast an individual is he/she has to be able to do so when it matters most. It is those intangibles – desire and ability to perform at one’s best under pressure – that make most champions.
Bolt is indeed a champion. He has performed at the highest level in back to back championships winning four individual gold medals and four world records in the process. But everyone seemed to forget that Tyson Gay has crossed the line first twice in a major championship himself. One of those races beating a man – Asafa Powell – that was the WR holder and supposed to be able to destroy him. That was considered an “upset” by many as well. But Gay, when faced with tough odds, always seems able to bring his best.
The other gold medal that Tyson Gay won in Osaka was against Usain Bolt himself in the 200 – the last time the two have met over the distance. Now, since then much has been chronicled about how much Usain Bolt has improved in the interim – all the way to 9.58 & 19.19. But what has gone unnoticed apparently is how much Tyson Gay has improved as well. The man that beat Usain Bolt was no 9.9x 100 meter man taking a shot at the big man. He wasn’t even the 9.84 sprinter that took down Asafa Powell in Osaka. Tyson Gay is the second fastest sprinter in history at 9.69! And over the last two seasons has run – 9.68w, 9.69, 9.71, 9.75w, 9.76w, 9.77, 9.77, 9.79w, 9.79w – 9 races legal and windy under 9.80. Guess how many races under 9.80 Usain Bolt has run, windy and legal, in the same time frame – 7. So Tyson Gay has proved to have as much “leg speed” (i.e. able to run as fast) as Bolt. So Gay being able to defeat Bolt should NOT be that big a surprise. Besides, after Stockholm their record is only 2-1 in favor of Bolt (not sure where TFN is coming up with a third win). So it’s not as if Bolt has this long history of defeating Gay.
Of course the trump card here for Usain is that he has performed his best two times under the spotlight of the Olympics and World Championships. Which reminds me of a Maurice Greene quote. When asked how he felt his WR 9.79 compared to the 9.84 record of Donovan Bailey that he took down, Mo said in effect “his came on the big stage”! Because world records set in the Games and Worlds take on a superhuman persona. Those races seem bigger than life. and those that run them become bigger than life. And setting records in both – double records at that – has given Bolt the persona of being bigger than life. But at the end of the day – or perhaps I should say prior to taking to the blocks – he still has to pull his designer uniform over his head just like the other competitors, and lace up his yam colored shoes just as they do.
And for some of his competition, those designer duds have a target on the back. Again quoting Mo Greene, when asked how he trained being “The Man” he in effect said “I train like #2, trying to be”. Because the true competitors of the sport are always trying to get to #!. And when you’re Mo Greene, Carl Lewis or Edwin Moses, YOU are the goal of those with true heart! Which is why there is no “unbeatable”, just those that haven’t been defeated YET. How long that takes depends on both the “hunters” and the “hunted” – what you do to stay there and what you do to get there.
So for all those looking for “reasons” why Bolt lost perhaps you’re looking at the wrong person and the wrong reasons. It may not be all about Bolt and whether or not he wanted or didn’t want to win – sounds rather ridiculous to even say. Yes he was injured earlier, but has since run 9.86 and 9.82 and defeated Asafa Powell who has also run 9.82 this season. And Tyson Gay has had injury ills of his own this season (and last). But then, to get a race full of athletes that are all 100% on any given day is somewhat of a fallacy. Charlie Greene took to the starting line of the 100 in Mexico City with a hamstring issue. Ditto Tommie Smith in the 200. Jim Hines beat Charlie Greene, Tommie Smith won gold in a WR. Calvin Smith was injured at the Trials in ’84, Carl Lewis went on to double gold. Mo Greene pulled up during the race in Edmonton yet held off Tim Montgomery for the win. Tyson Gay took to the starting line in Berlin having nursed a groin all season – lost to Bolt, defeated Powell. When you line up only track nerds like me remember what your condition was, history simply writes down the results – wins, losses and times.
And to question that an athlete would step to the track with the intent to do anything less than their best, or
would not try once there, impugns the integrity of the athlete – and ultimately of the sport. Champions – those with the hardware and those working hard to get it – are competitive by nature. You show up to win – in some cases against all odds. To do, or to assume that one would do, anything less begins to make assumptions about integrity that shouldn’t be uttered.
They ran a race and someone won and seven others lost. That’s how it works. Some win more than others, but all can lose. Shock and surprised? No I’m not. But then my memory is a lot longer than some others. Frankly it’s good for the sport. I’ve said all year that the sport needs rivalries and that we need to tout more than one or two athletes. Bolt v Gay can be exciting for the sport – especially when there is a question as to what the outcome might be. Predictability leads to boredom – and that’s the last thing this sport needs. We need excitement. Look at how much discussion this one race has elicited! Imagine what four or five races/events like this a week could do for track and field.
To see Conway Hill’s blog and his excellent cite, please check out: