The thrill-a-second rush

If athletics is the quintessential Olympic sport, then the sprints are the piece de resistance of the track and field programme. From Jesse Owens down to Carl Lewis, even the greatest of all-round athletes have found themselves celebrated principally for their skills over the shortest of racing distances. An off-beat look at why sprints are so fascinating.

When eight of the world’s best sprinters run like hell, whether the distance is 100 metres or 200, it is an extraordinary spectacle.   -  Getty Images

Although man has always been awed by speed and has attached a near-superhuman aura to the speed merchants in all areas of human activity — from the ones who inhabited caves and chased animals on a breakfast run through to the gunslingers who were the quickest on the draw — the appeal and influence of speed has never been as widespread and universal as it is today.

Speed, after all, is the leitmotiv of the era in which we live. Anybody who is a somebody in this world, and anybody who dreams of becoming a somebody, has to necessarily worship at the altar of speed at one time or the other in this age of the Concorde and the Bullet Train.


And sport is not only life in miniature but it also adds a new dimension to speed and its influence. What is true of life is true of sport too, but only in a much more emphatic way. Especially so as we reach the turn of a century.

These are days of 142 mph serves in tennis, 95 mph deliveries from bowlers and over 130 mph laps by Formula One drivers. This is an era in which technology has redefined the meaning of speed and power in almost every sport and the redefining is something of a continuing process. Things that were thought of as impossible before the birth of the 21st century — a sub 9.9 in 100m or an 8.95 metre long jump — are now part of history.

On the choked city roads in most parts of our over-crowded world, speed may kill more than it thrills, but in sport speed is often synonymous with excitement, both for the performer and for the spectator.

“The feeling of running fast is unforgettable. The exhilaration you feel round a bend, it’s like you’re in charge, you are a Ferrari,” says the former British sprinter Alan Wells, who won the 100m dash in the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

In the event, the exhilaration is felt as much by those watching. As the speed merchants glide over the polyurethene track like superfast Express trains, the explosion of power makes for a riveting spectacle. The unbelievable surge of power is at once thrilling and memorable.

In a way it doesn’t seem reasonable that a race that takes less time to run than it takes for you to tie your shoelaces — the 100m dash — should enjoy so much popularity at the Olympics and elsewhere. But the keys to its appeal may lie as much in the short sprint’s brevity itself as in the kind of intense emotions arid efforts that are packed into an event that is over in less than 10 seconds.

The 1991 Tokyo World Championship saw a scintillating finish in the 100. Even the sixth finisher, Raymond Stewart of Jamaica, timed 9.96.   -  Getty Images


“The Olympic 100m final is the modern equivalent of the Gold Rush,” wrote the American sportswriter Colin Jarman. And the glamour race of the athletics programme has all the human drama of a historic Gold Rush, too — it is as full of rags to riches stories as it is of the riches to rags version.

Who can ever forget the image of a man of impressive muscularity, and one glowering with power, charging down the track as if on turbo-powered legs and then breaking momentum nonchalantly with an upraised finger at the 1988 Seoul Olympics?

As Ben Johnson sped away after an explosive start, the great Carl Lewis was left hopelessly behind, looking sideways three times but unable to come up with anything to match the Jamaican-born Canadian in a race that was billed as the dash of the century.

Yet, only 48 hours later, the race of the century turned out to be the farce of the century as the fastest man on earth turned out to be a chemical miracle rather than a sprinting magician. It was the night of the long knives and soon the greatest hero of the track became a symbol of everything that was wrong with the sport.

This piece of history is recollected here only to show how intense and universal reactions can be vis a vis anything that has to do with sprints. Not many can so much as successfully recall the names of weightlifters whose urine samples tested positive for steroids. And so many reams of newsprint and so many hours on debating the issue would have hardly been spent if Johnson were a 10,000m runner rather than a sprinter.

“I've been working 12 years for this moment. I sailed right through,” said Johnson, after his stunning 9.79. As it turned out, he was working 12 years as much in packing himself with steroids that helped him build incredible upper body strength which, in turn, powered him to explosive, and seemingly humanly impossible starts from the blocks.

If one of the most thrilling aspects of watching Johnson race was to see him leave the block like a torpedo, then generally speaking, the 100m start itself is one of the most riveting pieces of action in athletics. Eight crouched runners, each trying to outdo the others in terms of reacting quickly to the gun — 0.16s is said to be the average reaction time, although men like Johnson and the American Dennis Mitchell, who will run in Barcelona, get off the blocks miraculously sooner — and then the explosive surge that takes up thousands of calories of energy....

“Remember only one thing. The pistol and the tape. When you hear one, run like hell till you break the other,” Sam Muusabini, the man who trained Harold Abrahams to gold in the 1924 Paris Olympics, used to say. And when eight of the world’s best sprinters run like hell, whether the distance is 100 metres or 200, it is an extraordinary spectacle.

And just how exciting a great 100m race can be was seen in Tokyo last year during the World Championship where the man who finished sixth — Raymond Stewart of Jamaica — had a time of 9.96, something that would have been good enough for gold in most international meets.

That was the day when the peerless Carl Lewis, who, unfortunately, failed to qualify for the sprints in Barcelona, ran a perfect race to dip under 9.9 for the first time in his incomparable career. “This is definitely the happiest day of my career. There is no way to describe how I felt,” said Lewis after his 9.86 world record.

Years ago, when he had still not travelled to his first Olympics, the young Lewis, whose self-confidence often bordered on arrogance, was fond of saying, “When I run like Carl Lewis — relaxed, smooth and easy — I can run races that seem effortless to me and to those watching.”

Well, at age 30 last year at Tokyo, the greatest all round athlete of our times made sprinting look so simple, so wonderfully smooth and so remarkably effortless.

The loser at Barcelona will not be Lewis but the sprint races. Others who were part of the unforgettable Tokyo cast — Leroy Burrell, Dennis Mitchell, Linford Christie and Frankie Fredericks — are expected to be around when the starting gun is sounded on August 1 for the 100m final at the Montjuic stadium but fate has denied the great man a grand farewell in an event —the 100m — that he has graced with such splendid success for so long.

Katrin Krabbe of Germany finishing first in the women’s 100m in Tokyo.   -  Getty Images


Yet, there will be considerable drama even if the timeless appeal of a Lewis v Johnson rivalry is missing this time. Men like Michael Johnson, seemingly invincible over 200 metres, will be hoping to reach new realms of achievement and so will a bunch of women sprinters who must benefit from the absence of the beautiful German, Katrin Krabbe, caught up in a drug controversy, and the now-retired Florence Grifflth-Joyner, the sprint queen of Seoul.

Whatever the cast, the sprints are sprints... sources of endless excitement and unmatched human drama, all squeezed into 10 seconds or 20. And the speed merchants of the track are quite the dream merchants, too!

This article was published in The Sportstar on August 1, 1992.

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