Friday, August 10, 2012

For love of Olympic Track and Field

It's been a long two weeks of Olympics; I am almost glad they are winding down, because I'm exhausted!  I mean, I don't know how many more nights I can lay on the couch until midnight, stressed out, eating milk and cookies, watching these people compete. The first week was filled with swimming, which of course means ogling the male swimmers' amazing physiques, then we were immediately thrown right into track & field, which has always been a favorite of mine. Move over Missy Franklin, because you may have swam in 15 races, but I don't get a single night off in two weeks!

Ever since I can remember, I've been obsessed with track and field. What really sealed the deal for me was when I was 13, watching Michael Johnson's unparalleled double gold in the 200 and 400 meters at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, wearing his famous (and fabulous) gold spikes. His performance in the 200m still gives me chills - the then-world record of 19.32 seconds (which, ironically, was Usain Bolt's winning 200m time in London) was so fast he actually injured his hamstring to the point he was never the same after. And neither was I - it was official, I was obsessed with track.

Michael Johnson's gold-medal winning and world-record breaking performance, Atlanta 1996. Photo credit, AP
Anyway, back to the present. I can't talk about London 2012 without first discussing the most talked-about (track) athlete in these Games, Usain Bolt. Has there ever been a more fitting name for an athlete? He was literally born to be fast. Despite a couple of losses leading up to the Olympics, everyone knew Bolt had something special in store for us. It's hard enough to win back-to-back gold in one event, yet Bolt did it in both the 100 and 200 m, proving that, without a doubt, he is the fastest man who has ever lived.

Videos may not be able to truly capture how fast Bolt is, but still photos sure can.

Bolt has three major factors that make him the Fastest Man on Earth. His two major "losses" in the past two years have come to countryman Yohan Blake, at the 2011 World Championships after Bolt was disqualified for a false start, and the 2012 Jamaican Olympics Trials, where Bolt wasn't 100% healthy. I believe that Bolt is unbeatable when healthy.

First, he is extremely tall, especially for a sprinter, at 6'5", so though he has to use more energy to move that amount of mass, his strides are extremely efficient - in his 100m win in London, Bolt took just 41 steps, five fewer than silver medalist Blake, and two fewer than bronze medalist Justin Gatlin. His energy-output-to-stride ratio, according to many people smarter than me who have studied his races, is the most efficient there has ever been.

Second, he possesses superior strength and flexibility. According to Dr. Ross Tucker of The Science of Sport website, this allows him to accelerate quickly and maintain a very high top speed. He explains: "I've not seen such an elastic runner before. Bolt's advantages stem from a superior stretch-shortening cycle function, which allows energy to be stored and used more effectively. We know from research that power output is proportional to the amount of energy that can be stored and released from the muscle-tendon junction during the muscle contraction." That is way above my head, but it sounds like it makes sense.

Third, Bolt also has exceptional reaction time. Out of the blocks in London's 100m finals, despite saying he sat back a bit for fear of a false start and being disqualified a la the 2011 World Championships, Bolt's reaction after the gun was clocked at 0.165 second, vs. Blake (0.179 sec) and Gatlin (0.178 sec). Imagine if the ridiculous "one false start and you're out" rule wasn't in place, and Bolt was able to react without fear of a false start and disqualification.

Though Bolt blew everyone's socks off yet again, my favorite track and field athletes in these Olympics are, bar-none, Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards Ross. Felix finished 5th in the 100m, but finally captured the elusive gold in the 200m; and Richards Ross avenged her 2008 4th place finish in the 400m with a win in London. Both heavy favorites in their premier events, I think what I love about them both is how strong, yet feminine they both are. There is no question looking at their physiques that they are world-class athletes, but they both manage to also be drop-dead gorgeous in a sport where woman aren't usually seen that way. They had the determination to train for four years after bitter disappointment for the chance to redeem themselves. They are definitely women that little girls - and 29 year old mothers - want to be, and women who deserve our admiration.

Sanya Richards Ross after winning the 400m gold medal. Photo credit: Getty images.

Allyson Felix as she finishes her gold-medal-winning 200m race. Photo credit: AP
Speaking of admiration, I can't talk about 2012 Olympic track and field without discussing South Africa's Oscar Pistorius, who is a double amputee. After a long battle for inclusion in able-bodied competition in the individual events, Pistorius qualified for the Olympics and reached the semifinals in the 400 meters. The argument against allowing him in the able-bodied competition was that his  artificial lower legs, while enabling him to compete, give him an unfair advantage over able-bodied runners. Pistorius' argument is, if that were true, then all Paralympians would be running able-bodied times - but they aren't. In fact, Pistorius is by far the best Paralympian runner, and the first amputee to ever compete in Olympics track and field. I happen to agree with him, and I'm so glad he was finally able to compete in the Olympics, further proving that anything is possible. Pistorius is unquestionably the most inspiring athlete of these games, and despite not even making the finals in his individual event, he is one of the most respected athletes to compete in London.

South Africa's Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee, competes in the 400m. Photo credit: Reuters

From Bolt, Felix, Richards Ross and Pistorius, to Britain's Jessica Ennis surviving the weight of a country on her shoulders to win the women's heptathlon, David Rushida's world-record 800 meter win, and Manteo Mitchell finishing the first leg of the US 4x400 relay on a broken leg, track and field in London has surpassed my expectations and served to further my love for the sport.

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