How Bolt defied science to become the greatest ever

Not only has Usain Bolt dominated a field of athletic freaks with questionable histories of doping to become the greatest sprinter ever, he's defied well accepted science in the process.

The eight-time Olympic gold medalist is the first person in the world to both the 100 metre and 200 metre world records since fully automatic time became mandatory, while he also holds the world record for the 4x100 metres relay.

There's absolutely no denying he's the greatest sprinter ever, but what makes his achievements even more remarkable is the fact that until he came along, science dictated that world champion sprinters had to range between 5-foot-9 and 6-foot-3, at the maximum.

Bolt is 6-foot-5.

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Bolt towers over his opponents. Pic: Getty
Bolt towers over his opponents. Pic: Getty

The theory, according to the Journal of Sports Science and Media, states that "The acceleration of the body is proportional to the force produced but inversely proportional to the body mass, according to Newton's second law. … This implies an inverse relationship between height and performance in disciplines such as sprint running."

The shorter the distance, the more physics works against the big guys.

This is especially relevant at the start of races, where Bolt clearly struggles to match the acceleration of his opponents, and almost always starts slow.

The range that pinpoints 6-foot-3 as the maximum height for sprint runners encapsulates every recent gold medallist in sprint events, until Bolt came around.

But how did he manage to overcome the limitations of being tall and big to become the greatest sprinter ever?

Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt embrace at the World Championships. Pic: Getty
Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt embrace at the World Championships. Pic: Getty

Well it's been an arduous process, beginning when Bolt first took up sprinting as a gangly giant, coached by Glen Mills.

"Biomechanically, his body placement was not ideal for sprinting," Mills told the Jamaica Gleaner.

"His head was back, his shoulders were well behind his center of gravity, this resulted in him spending too much time in the air and over-striding."

But now: "his length of stride is compatible with his height," Mills said.

"One of the reasons he has such a long but efficient stride is because he lifts his knees so well."

Bolt eventually developed the perfect gait for a runner of his size, maximising efficiency in a way that will force the academic journals to be re-written.

And of course there are advantages to being taller than the rest, especially in stride length.

Bolt's longer legs give him an enormous stride length, meaning he needs just 41 steps to cover 100 metres, whereas his opponents average 44 steps.

However he still occasionally looks awkward on the track, against smaller men who's every movement has to be precise in order to compete.

For Bolt, now he's got his gait right, the truth is the top half just doesn't matter as much.

That's why he occasionally looks wobbly and less coordinated than his counterparts.

Now, you might wonder why there aren't a whole line of 6-foot-5 athletic freaks gunning for sprint gold medals now Bolt has proven the science wrong.

However that is unlikely to happen, given almost every athlete who grows up with such genetic gifts as Bolt is snapped up from an early age to become superstars in sports such as basketball.

Thankfully for all of us, Bolt stuck with athletics.