Beyond Usain Bolt?

By Neil Duncanson
In well over 100 years there have been only 25 men who have tasted the Olympian heights and laid claim to the title “Fastest Man on Earth”. It is an elite and also an eclectic club.
The stories of these fast men are an extraordinary blend of success and disaster, as well as glory and tragedy; ranging from amazing wealth to grinding poverty; superstar adulation and national hero status to bankruptcy, shame, prison, even suicide.

As a compelling human interest story, it’s been an extraordinary rolling soap opera. And it doesn’t look like stopping any time soon. With arguably the sport’s greatest ever sprinter Usain Bolt on a one-man mission to rewrite the history books, it looks likely the fastest men that follow him will need to be even more extraordinary.
But what about these future fast men? Who will they be and just how fast could they go? And is it now a cast-iron fact, at least at the elite level, that white men can’t sprint? These are perennial questions for fans of track and field, and the source of endless study and debate among scientists all over the world.
Scientific experiments on the world’s fastest men are nothing new. After the Berlin Olympics of 1936 and the Nazi sneers about “black auxiliaries” running for the United States, Jesse Owens agreed to take part in a revealing study. It had been dismissively suggested that the real reason for his Olympic triumph was that he possessed longer tendons in his feet, a physiological advantage, so scientists of the day surmised, of black athletes. However, when the study results were published, it was discovered that Owens had, in fact, shorter tendons than all the other sprinters at the Games.

But isn’t it demonstratively clear that black athletes are fundamentally better equipped to run faster than their white counterparts? After all, the last white Olympic 100m champion was Allan Wells in 1980. In fact, Moscow was the last time any white man lined up for the Olympic 100m final, and that was more than 30 years ago.
The debate can cause a good deal of political and cultural friction, and the scientists themselves have been accused of closet racism for suggesting natural differences may exist between the races.
A fascinating study of the subject was made by think-tank scholar and journalist Jon Entine in his 1999 book theatrically entitled Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It. Entine’s theory about sprinting is that not all black athletes have a natural advantage, rather just a subset who can trace their ancestry back to West Africa.

Just as East Africans appear to have a natural ability for distance running, he says, the West African athletes and their descendants appear to have more success in sprinting. He correctly claimed – back then – that no white, Asian or East African athlete had ever broken 10 seconds in the 100m, in which case it is just possible his theory has some substance rather than being a sweeping generalisation.
Research published in the early 1970s suggested that black sprinters had six major differences from their white counterparts: less body fat, shorter torsos, thinner hips, longer legs, thicker thigh muscles and thinner calf muscles. But, in terms of running fast, there was also another, critical difference: a higher percentage of what physiologists call fast-twitch fibres.

The motion of the average human is geared by a largely even balance of slow-and fast-twitch muscle fibres, but research shows that just as marathon runners have an imbalance – sometimes as much as 80% slow-twitch fibres – so too do sprinters. The top sprinters have 80% fast-twitch fibres, and these allow them to be far more explosive and faster in short bursts.

Given this intriguing physiological information and despite the young Frenchman Christophe Lemaitre becoming the first white man to break the 10-second barrier in July 2010, it’s hard to imagine a white sprinter climbing on top of the Olympic 100m podium ever again.
The talented and long-legged Lemaitre has since lowered his personal best to 9.92, but it’s not false modesty when he admits he is simply running for a place in the 2012 Olympic final. His current best would have given him equal fifth place in Beijing, and the widely held view is that on current form he will need to find at least another couple of tenths to trouble the podium in London.

But Lemaitre is a significant exception to the rule of what makes the perfect fast man, and that leads us on to the next question. What are the common characteristics in the world’s fastest men and is there a human speed limit?
The widely respected coach Dan Pfaff, now preparing athletes for Team GB for London 2012, says of top sprinters: “First and foremost I think that great 100m sprinters are tremendous risk takers. In the 100 you take 41 to 44 steps and there’s a lot of monitoring going on with each step, checking your position, ground contact time, projection angles of flight, balance, where people are around you, acceleration curves, and you have to make a lot of very fast decisions. So when you are in the zone of a sprinter it’s super, super slo-mo and you’re processing tons of information and you have to take chances with things, so the common denominator in great sprinters is that they’re kind of gunslingers. You have to have a certain amount of bravado and risk taking in your personality. There have been some who don’t conform to that format and they can run great times, at times, but not all the time and not in championships.”

As to how far Usain Bolt can go, Pfaff has an interesting coaching perspective.
“Bolt is so far ahead of the field that he can be joyful, playful and relaxed. It would be interesting if two or three people could challenge him. He doesn’t lose a lot of sleep over what happens in the first 10, 20 or 30 metres. But at 50m he knows what he has to do. When he gets to 50m there’s not usually a lot of traffic around him, so it would be interesting to see if he got to 50m, 70m, even 80m and three guys were still with him. Would he run a crazy time or would he fold?

“If you study his three fastest 100m, there are faulty movements from the blocks in the first few steps and that affects the whole race, plus in some races he’s shutting down at 80m, so what’s that worth? Can he run in the 9.4s? He’s been pretty fortunate with injury, and as you age and injuries accumulate they never totally leave you, you just compensate more. There’s always a price for every injury.”
Mathematical models have always existed in sports, especially athletics, and they tend to chart a standard progression of world records in nice neat curves, with very occasional and sometimes unexplainable blips. Usain Bolt has already beaten that curve by running 9.58secs in the 2009 world championships, a time that wasn’t supposed to be possible, at least according to the mathematicians, for another 50 years. Before Bolt’s stunning performance in Berlin, the so-called experts had suggested the natural limit for the human body was anywhere between 9.60 and 9.26secs.

Another esteemed mathematician, Reza Noubary, from Bloomberg University of Pennsylvania, calculated the “ultimate record” for the 100m was 9.44secs. But as all athletes and coaches will tell you, no one has won a gold medal or broken a world record on a mathematical chart. Indeed, the boffins only use existing data to extrapolate what might happen in the future, rather than examining the potential changes in human physiology or likely biological improvements. In his intriguing 2010 book The Perfection Point, sports scientist John Brenkus calculated the ultimate 100m would be run in 8.99secs and that at the 55-metre mark the sprinter would be moving at 29.4mph. “Unless the species changes,” he suggests, “it’s the fastest a human will ever run.”
A futuristic view, from biostatistician Peter Weyand of the Southern Methodist University, in Texas, who is best known for his studies of animal movement and performance, is that a five-second 100m record is not impossible. It sounds crazy but Weyand believes humans will soon have the ability to modify and greatly enhance muscle fibre strength.

He also believes that it is impossible for mathematicians to predict the magnitude of the “freakiness of athletic talent at the extreme margins of humanity. Usain Bolt being a classic example.” Weyand describes Bolt as “an outlier” – someone who combines the mechanical advantages of taller men and the fast-twitch fibres of smaller men.

In the end it will be up to the regulators of the sport to determine what they are prepared to allow in the pursuit of speed. Biomechanical expert John Hutchinson, from London’s Royal Veterinary College, says: “It’s a kind of arms race between the regulators of the sport and the people trying to push the technology to the limits. At some point there must be a détente, where technology can’t push us any further and the rules will restrict it.”
Humans have not yet broken the 30mph barrier, but that does not appear to be far off. When Jesse Owens broke the world record in the 1930s, he hit a top speed of 21.7mph, whereas Bolt’s world record has him at close to 28mph. So, fifty years from now, could we be seeing a seven-foot version of Usain Bolt, his DNA tweaked with that of a cheetah, running at speeds of over 40mph?

It is all scientifically possible. Weyand does not believe that one day a human could outrun a cheetah, but our understanding of what the human body can endure, in terms of the speed of the muscles and the force of the legs and feet hitting the ground, is certainly being redefined.

In an Olympics of all animal species, Usain Bolt would come in 28th, ahead of the elephant. The cheetah would win the gold. Animal locomotion expert McNeill Alexander, from the University of Leeds, says our main disadvantage is the size of our limbs. “We’re still suffering from having evolved from apes with big feet and plenty of muscle all the way up the leg.”

For a long time, experts assumed that our speed was limited by the maximum force our feet could generate against the ground. But recent research suggested that the body could sustain more force but simply needed to move quicker, with the feet spending less time on the ground, which took them back to how fast the muscles could work.

“When people run they are essentially bouncing through the air from one leg to another,” says Daniel Lieberman, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University. “What determines how fast people go is their stride length, a function of how long the legs are, how powerfully they push into a stride, how far forward the body jumps and their stride rate, which is how fast they can propel their legs forward.’
All of which points to the reasons behind Usain Bolt’s success, because he uses longer strides and during a 100m race his feet remain on the ground less than his rivals. In Beijing Bolt covered the 100m in between 40 and 41 strides, whereas the average for the other finalists was 47. His stride length was measured at about a foot longer than the other sprinters.

So what about changing our muscle fibre composition to upgrade to more fast- twitch fibres? Or, as one scientist put it, just splice some hummingbird genes into our own DNA? “It would certainly make us radically faster,” says SMU’s Peter Weyand. “If somebody manages the technical trick of having really fast animal fibres introduced, then all bets are off. Really crazy things would happen.”
Another possibility is that our own DNA could be manipulated to code for the fast-type muscle fibres, and the science for that, say the experts, is already in place – experiments have taken place in southern California and proved that it works. “That’s the whole gene doping scenario,” says Weyand, “and that’s probably not very far away.”

So at the Olympic Games of 2036 – 100 years after Jesse Owens – we could be witnessing some extraordinary times if the scientists get their way. It may sound like a bad plot for a kids’ cartoon but if the history of the fastest men on earth has taught us anything, then it’s always to expect the unexpected. – [The Guardian]


Basil D’Oliveira: A symbol of sport’s struggle against apartheid

By Peter Mason
Though Basil D’Oliveira, who has died aged 80 after suffering from Parkinson’s disease, was one of the greatest cricketers ever to come out of South Africa, he will be best remembered for the dramatic role he played in helping to defy apartheid in sport. As a mixed race – in South African terms, “coloured” – player of exceptional ability in his native Cape Town, he was denied the chance to play for the country of his birth by the racial segregation of the apartheid regime. When he went to play in England and became a Test player there, his eventual selection for the 1968-69 England tour to South Africa so offended the warped sensibilities of John Vorster’s government that it refused to allow him to play, and the tour was cancelled. As a result, South Africa was exiled from international cricket until the fall of apartheid in 1994.

The dignified but determined way in which D’Oliveira dealt with the resulting turmoil won the hearts of the British public and, more importantly, proved to be a turning point in the South African attitude to segregated games. Although it took many years for things to change, the D’Oliveira affair ushered in the start of a gradual easing of official segregation in South African sport, and significantly hurt the regime’s world standing.

D’Oliveira never wished to be at the centre of controversy. While proud of his role in bringing the iniquities of apartheid to wider attention, he was essentially a reserved, easygoing man who preferred not to rock the boat. All he wanted to do was to play cricket at the highest level, which was where he belonged.
From an early age, D’Oliveira was the best cricketer in the non-white leagues of South Africa. At 21, he hit seven sixes and one four in an eight ball over, and at 23 scored 225 in an astonishing 75 minutes – out of his team’s total of 236. He was a successful medium pace bowler too, taking nine for two in one innings, and before long he became captain of St Augustine’s, the premier Cape Town club, near his birthplace of Signal Hill, a team that his father had also skippered.

Had he been white, D’Oliveira would probably have played in his teens for South Africa and might well have risen to be acknowledged as one of the greatest cricketers of all time. But while his success in non-white cricket was unmatched, he spent his prime years up to the age of 28 confined to playing on scrubby matting wickets on wasteland. By 1959, disillusioned and disheartened, he had become resigned to his situation. He married his childhood sweetheart Naomi and channelled his efforts into his job as a machinist at a printing firm.
Then he received a reply to a letter he had sent, more in hope than expectation, to Middleton cricket club in Lancashire. Their West Indies professional, Wes Hall, had pulled out at the last minute, and they were offering D’Oliveira a playing contract for the summer of 1960. The news energised not just D’Oliveira but much of black Cape Town, which raised the money to pay for the flight to send him to England. At an age when most cricketers would be reaching their peak, he was just starting out.

D’Oliveira’s early days in the cold and rain of Lancashire were miserable. In profound culture shock – not least from the sensation of freely mixing with white people for the first time – and in testing playing conditions he had never experienced before, he made a wretched start. But with moral support from the broadcaster, Guardian writer and anti-apartheid campaigner John Arlott, who had helped him get the Middleton job in the first place, he gradually turned around a series of poor performances to the point where he topped the Central Lancashire League batting averages – ahead even of the great West Indian all-rounder Garry Sobers. His contract was extended for another two years, and when he went home to Cape Town in the winter, the streets were lined with cheering crowds.

D’Oliveira returned to England in the spring of 1961 with Naomi, this time for good. The England batsman Tom Graveney recommended D’Oliveira to his own county, Worcestershire, and he was signed up – though only after he had made the decision to lie about his age, claiming he was three years younger than he was. He made his first-class debut at 30.

The first non-white South African to play county cricket, D’Oliveira’s exhilarating middle-order batting and tight bowling made an immediate impact as he scored a century on his county championship debut in 1964 and helped Worcestershire to win the competition that year. In May 1966, now a British citizen, he was selected to play for England at the age of 34. He made his debut against West Indies at Lords and had a successful series, showing a trademark ability to produce his best under the most intense pressure. After another good series at home against Pakistan and India in 1967, when he was named one of the five Wisden cricketers of the year, the first blip in his inexorable rise came during the 1967-68 tour of West Indies, where modest performances on the field were partly attributed to his enjoyment of local hospitality.

With the 1968-69 tour of South Africa coming up the following winter, D’Oliveira refocused, and he hit a fighting 87 in the first test of the 1968 summer series against Australia. But it became clear that members of the cricketing establishment wanted to avoid the embarrassment of taking D’Oliveira to South Africa, and to widespread disbelief he played no further part in the Ashes series until the final test at the Oval, where he was a late substitute. Knowing that his place in history was riding on it, D’Oliveira rose to the challenge magnificently with a score of 158 to help England win the match and draw the series – and so topped the Test averages for the season.

For most commentators he had squarely made his case for inclusion in the squad to South Africa, but the MCC, which picked the touring team, felt otherwise. To general consternation and much recrimination, he was left out. Arlott summarised the mood when he said the MCC had “never made a sadder, more dramatic or more potentially damaging selection,” and the subsequent fallout turned into the worst crisis of the MCC’s history. D’Oliveira, privately devastated to the point of physical collapse but publicly stoic throughout, received so many thousands of letters of support that the Post Office had to make special arrangements to deal with them – while the MCC was castigated by the media and the Labour government for cowardly appeasement of apartheid.
Chastened by the outraged response, the MCC found a way out. On 16 September 1968, the bowler Tom Cartwright pulled out of the tour with an injury, and the selectors brought D’Oliveira in, even though he was not a logical replacement for the slot that had been vacated. D’Oliveira and his supporters celebrated, but the moment was short-lived. Within three days, the South African government had made it clear that it would not allow him to play, and the MCC was forced to cancel the tour.

The decision was a great disappointment for D’Oliveira, who had wanted above all else to play Test cricket in his native land. But it was a landmark decision that marked a key point in the isolation of apartheid South Africa, and it brought D’Oliveira hero status. When the 1970 South Africa tour of England was cancelled too, he batted with great success against a replacement Rest of the World side, and in the following winter played a major role in England’s Ashes-winning tour of Australia, scoring a match-saving 117 at Melbourne. Though by now showing his age, which he had declared more honestly two years before, he appeared 11 more times for England, playing his last Test in 1972 at the age of 41. He featured in 44 Tests in all, scoring 2,484 runs and five centuries at an average of 40.06 and picking up 47 wickets at 39.55 runs apiece.
His county career carried on for another eight years, and he was a dominant figure in the Worcestershire team that won the county championship in 1974, making his highest first-class score – 227 – that year. He finally bowed out in 1980, having averaged 40.26 with the bat in 367 first class matches, with 45 hundreds and 551 first class wickets at 27.45 – all in his 30s and 40s.

D’Oliveira remained with Worcestershire as an avuncular coach, guiding the county to two more championships in 1988 and 1989, and being appointed CBE in 2005. A stand at Worcester’s New Road ground was named after him, and Test series between South Africa and England are now fought for the Basil D’Oliveira trophy.
He is survived by Naomi and their two sons, Damian, who also played for Worcestershire, and Shaun. “Dolly” was a very popular figure in his adopted home: he had also carried the hopes of so many of his black South African countrymen and – through grit, determination and huge skill – triumphed on their behalf as well as his own. – [The Guardian]