Usain Bolt's 9.58 a decade on: The science behind the world's fastest man

By Sports Desk August 16, 2019

On August 16, 2009, Usain Bolt clocked 9.58 seconds in the final of the 100 metres at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin.

A decade on, with the eight-time Olympic champion now retired, that world-record time still stands.

At just 22, the Jamaican obliterated a mark he had set exactly one year earlier at the Olympics in Beijing, shaving more than a tenth of a second of the time.

Doctor Peter Weyand, a biomechanics expert at Southern Methodist University, told Omnisport what made Bolt so unique.

A slow starter?

One of the biggest misconceptions of Bolt was that, due to his 6ft 5in frame, he was a slow starter. Not true, says Weyand. Particularly on that night in Germany when only Dwain Chambers was ahead of him after the first few strides.

"The most unusual thing was how well he was able to start for somebody as big as he is," Weyand explained.

"Normally the people that accelerate and get out of the blocks very quickly tend to be the shorter sprinters. The physics and biology of acceleration favours smaller people. In 2009, I think he started as well as anybody in that race. The start was a differentiator."

Long legs = more force

Though his height may have given him a slight disadvantage out of the blocks, Bolt's frame came in handy once the race opened up, allowing him to generate more power in the short steps sprinters take.

"What limits how fast a sprinter can go is how much force they can get down in the really short periods of time they have to do it," Weyand said.

"If you're going faster, the only way to do what you need to do to pop your body back up with a shorter contact time is to put down more force. What all elite sprinters do is put down more force in relation to their body mass than people who aren't as fast.

"If you're Bolt and you're 6ft 5in, you have a longer leg and you have more forgiveness. He probably has six, seven, eight milliseconds more on the ground.

"You have to put down a peak force of about five times body weight and that needs to happen in three hundredths of a second after your foot comes down.

"He was so athletic and so tall. His long legs gave him more time on the ground."

Fewer strides, greater success

Believe it or not, sprinters cannot maintain their top speed for the entire 100m. Bolt, who also holds the 200m world record, had another advantage in that he needed fewer strides to cover the distances.

"He had 41 steps usually [over 100m] and the other guys are 44, 45, some of the shorter ones are up in the high 40s," Weyand added.

"Particularly over 200 metres, the step numbers are directly related to fatiguing. If you go through fewer steps and fewer intense muscular contractions to put force into the ground, you have a fatigue-sparing effect."

Unique, but not perfect

Given he was able to accelerate out of the blocks quickly – relatively for his height – and was able to use his frame to generate more force across fewer strides, Bolt might have looked like the perfect sprinter.

But Weyand argued: "You can make a case that Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce is the best female sprinter ever and she's 5ft tall.

"There are trade-offs in terms of being forceful when you accelerate versus having more contact time at your top-end speed."

Will Bolt's WR ever be broken?

No current athlete looks close to eclipsing Bolt's time in the near future, but that does not mean his record time will stand forever.

In 2008, marathon runner and biology professor Mark Denny conducted research and predicted the fastest possible time a male sprinter could run is 9.48secs.

"Nothing's ever perfect, Bolt's obviously a unique athlete but no race is perfect and no set of circumstances are perfect," Weyand said.

"Certainly faster than 9.58 [is possible] but that's a question that's hard to answer without being pretty speculative."

The only thing that is certain is for now – as has been the case for the previous 10 years too – the title of 'the fastest man on earth' belongs to Bolt.

Related items

  • Napoli v Barcelona: Fabian Ruiz set for Blaugrana audition as he reunites with Setien Napoli v Barcelona: Fabian Ruiz set for Blaugrana audition as he reunites with Setien

    Quique Setien has long been regarded as a strong judge of potential in young players – they said it was one of the reasons Barcelona hired him in January despite leaving Real Betis last year having arguably fallen short of expectations.

    Ironically enough, Setien's keen eye and faith in academy products could end up costing Barca upwards of €60million, as the reimagining of their midfield looks set to continue.

    Why? Because in 2017, just after becoming Betis coach, Setien stepped in and insisted the club not sell Fabian Ruiz to Barca's B team for €1m. A paltry sum in current terms, but at the time the midfielder had only featured a few times for the Verdiblanco's senior side and just spent time on loan at Elche.

    "I refused as we wanted him at Betis. I saw Fabian's potential and we decided to keep him," Setien told Marca last year. His faith was well-placed – Fabian made 34 LaLiga appearances in 2017-18 and was one of the league's standout midfielders, earning a move to Napoli that reportedly cost €30m.

    An impressive first season in Serie A vindicated the fee and marked him out as one of Europe's most promising midfielders, leading once again to rumours of interest from Barcelona, and Real Madrid too, with both apparently seeing him as a candidate to replace ageing midfield options.

    Struggling to adapt to change, or lack of motivation?

    It's not all been plain sailing, however. This season has proven a challenging one for Fabian, who had a quiet start to the campaign before seeing his form drop off dramatically.

    When Gennaro Gattuso replaced Carlo Ancelotti, he retained faith in Fabian despite his issues, though his form didn't improve particularly with the alteration from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3.

    Italian publication Gazzetta dello Sport blasted Fabian just last month, suggesting there was a link between his form and the apparent interest of Barca, before saying his "slowness is embarrassing, almost penalising for Napoli's actions".

    But there's a feeling in Italy that Napoli's signing of midfield competition in Diego Demme and Stanislav Lobotka have coaxed a positive reaction from the Spaniard.

    With two goals in his past three matches, including excellent performances against Inter and Brescia, Fabian seems to have settled again – and just in time.

    The audition

    Given Fabian's wide-ranging skillset, he has been mentioned as a potential long-term replacement for more than one Barca midfielder.

    Chiefly, it has been suggested he might be the ideal man to push out the increasingly unpopular – among Barca fans, anyway – Ivan Rakitic, as Fabian boasts ability on the ball, incisive passing skills and is a capable striker of the ball. 

    While he may lack some of the industriousness of the Croatian, there's little doubt he would present a more refined technician in the final third.

    However, with Frenkie de Jong already at the club, others feel Fabian could be moulded into a long-term successor to Sergio Busquets, owing to their similar physical attributes and the Betis product's excellent distribution.

    According to Fabian, much of his game has been modelled on former Barca pass-master Xavi, having previously idolised Betis icon Capi – a more attack-minded midfielder – as a youngster, and such influences are clear to see.

    Regardless of Setien's presence – as it's by no means inconceivable to think he won't be at the club next season – it's obvious this tie represents a real opportunity for Fabian to shine against the players he could potentially be brought in to replace.

    How does he compare to Barca's current options?

    Currently, there is no one in the Barca midfield creating goal-scoring chances at the same rate as Fabian, who has laid on 121 opportunities since the start of last season across all competitions - Rakitic (41), Busquets (50), Arthur (41) and Arturo Vidal (47) are all way behind.

    Despite questions about his form, the Spaniard has played 38 key passes in 30 matches in 2019-20. De Jong is proving the most effective in that regard for Barca, but his 24 chances created in 33 outings on all fronts is also still some way behind Fabian.

    Fabian's record of 527 passes into the final third over the past 18 months compares pretty favourably against Rakitic (598), Arthur (374), Vidal (273) and Busquets (717).

    Fabian's average overall pass completion percentage at Napoli stands at 89 per cent, and while that is less than those posted by Busquets (91) and Arthur (93), it's by no means a dramatic drop-off and is the same as Rakitic's record. It suggests Fabian would have no issue acclimatising to Barca's style of play, regardless of whether or not Setien is still at Camp Nou.

    But proving those previous struggles merely came down to a blip in a generally tumultuous season at Napoli and building on his recent revival with eye-catching performances against Barca, in a Champions League tie no less, would suggest he has the mentality as well as the ability to play for the Spanish champions.

  • Messi and Lewandowski must improve – Champions League in Opta numbers Messi and Lewandowski must improve – Champions League in Opta numbers

    Lionel Messi will hope to better a barren record on Italian soil when Barcelona visit Napoli in the last 16 of the Champions League on Tuesday.

    Quique Setien's first match in charge in the competition will see him tasked with improving Barca's fortunes on their travels in Europe, although Napoli have an enviable goalscoring record in front of their own fans.

    Bayern Munich head to Chelsea in a repeat of the 2012 final that they lost on home soil, and goals certainly appear likely given the previous meetings between the pair.

    However, the Bundesliga champions will need Robert Lewandowski to find his shooting boots given the striker has struggled in recent seasons when going beyond the group stages.

    Here is the pick of the Opta facts ahead of two tantalising first legs...

    Chelsea v Bayern Munich

    17 - The four previous matches in all competitions between Chelsea and Bayern Munich have produced 17 goals, an average of 4.25 per game.

    18 - Bayern won maximum points (18/18) and had a goal difference of +19 in the Champions League group stages this season, the best performance by a team in the group phase of the competition. However, none of the previous six teams to have won all their group games have subsequently lifted the trophy that same season.

    1 - Chelsea have won only one of their past six Champions League games at Stamford Bridge (D4 L1), a 2-1 victory against Lille last December.

    5 - Chelsea and Bayern scored the joint-most goals from set-pieces in this season's Champions League group stages (5), including three each from corners.

    597 - Bayern striker Robert Lewandowski has scored 10 goals in this season's Champions League, only the second time he has reached double figures in the tournament after 2012-13 with Borussia Dortmund. However, he has failed to find the net in his past 597 minutes in the knockout stages of the tournament, his longest drought.

    Napoli v Barcelona

    2 - Napoli were eliminated in their two previous European Cup/Champions League two-legged ties with Spanish opposition, both times against Real Madrid: 3-1 on aggregate in 1987-88 (first round) and 6-2 in 2016-17 (round of 16).

    0 - Barcelona's last away win against Italian opposition in the Champions League knockout stages came in April 2006, when they beat Milan 1-0, courtesy of a Ludovic Giuly goal; current Napoli boss Gennaro Gattuso played in that game for Milan. Since then, Barcelona have failed to win any of their five such away trips to Italy (D1 L4) and have failed to score in the past four.

    20 - Napoli have only failed to score once in 20 Champions League games at the San Paolo, a goalless draw against Dynamo Kiev in November 2016. They are also unbeaten in their past seven home games in the competition (W5 D2).

    1 - Barca have won only one of their past eight away games in the Champions League knockout phase (D2 L5), a 1-0 victory against Manchester United in April 2019. In those eight games, they have scored only two goals and conceded 17.

    10 - Lionel Messi's total of two goals in five games in this season's Champions League group phase was his lowest for 10 years (since two goals in 2009-10). His only goal on Italian soil in the Champions League knockout stages was in the 2009 final against Manchester United at Rome's Stadio Olimpico – he has failed to find the net (or deliver an assist) in each of his subsequent five appearances.

  • Work on unsuitable throwing ring at Kingston's national stadium could begin this week Work on unsuitable throwing ring at Kingston's national stadium could begin this week

    If all goes according to plan, construction of a new throwing ring at the national stadium in Kingston should begin later this week.

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.