9.74 seconds …

I used to be a sprinter, of sorts. Back when I was a teenager, I was one of the top sprinters on my high-school track team in boarding school, but I struggled to run a sub-12 second 100m race. While I did quite well within my own school, and even within the Independent School Athletic Association in Ontario, it became very clear as I moved out into larger city-wide, or province-wide competitions, I was seriously out-classed even among my own age peers. While I was thrilled with a sub-12 second race, I was racing against peers at the provincial level who were expecting sub-11 second results, and even in my best race, the 200m, I struggled as a small fish in a very big, deep pond.But over the years, I’ve retained my interest in sprinting. At 41, I’d be shocked if I could run under 15 seconds these days, but I enjoy watching people who do it very well. Its been remarkable to watch the progression of records fall in the 100 meters over my adult life. Today’s record breaking run by Asafa Powell, at 9.74, seems truly mind-boggling, especially considering that when I was sprinting, back in the early 80’s, the magic number was initially Jim Hines’ 9.95 from Mexico City in 1968 until Calvin Smith became the first man to run faster than that under electronic timing, with his 9.93 second run in July of 1983, in what was described at the time as a herculean effort.

Carl Lewis was, of course, the other hugely prominent sprinter of the time. He trailed Smith through the early 80’s, but tied his mark twice in 1987 and 1988, before finally setting his own mark in September of 1988 at the Seoul Olympics. Of course, that same Olympics was the site of Ben Johnson’s drug-fueled shattering of the world record at 9.79. Johnson’s gold medal and world record were later stripped, of course, after a positive drug test, leaving Carl Lewis’s with the gold medal and his own world record, at 9.92.

At that time, Ben Johnson’s time of 9.79, and his previous quashed record of 9.83. seemed very “inhuman” given the tiny increases in speed seen previously, and it frankly wasn’t a huge surprise to hear of a positive drug test. At the time, times in the sub 9.8 range seemed completely out of reach, leaving aside Ben’s method’s. Even through the 90’s, when Carl Lewis and Leroy Burrell were dueling for the record, lowering the record into the 9.8’s in the early 90’s, before Donovan Bailey dropped it to 9.84 in 1996, symbolically redeeming Canadian sprinting after 1988. It still seemed a shock, to me at least, when Maurice Green broke the 9.8 second barrier in 1999, but we’ve seen a steady assault on the 9.7’s since then, largely by Powell.

Today’s run by Asafa Powell of Jamaica is another step that seems miraculous to a guy who struggled to get under 12 seconds. Watching the run (about a dozen times in reruns now, lol) I am struck by two things. First, his clear dominance of the field shows his mastery of form and body … the art of getting maximum power from human running is a precise one indeed, and not easy to master (Lord knows I was never able to master it). Second, it appeared, remarkably, that he almost let up at the end, leading to tantalizing possibilities for future races. Its wonderful to see a human run 100m in under 9 and three quarter seconds, and I salute Powell for the training and work that must have gone into it. Its even more remarkable from the perspective of a 15 year old boy, trying desperately to run sub-12 seconds, looking up at a 13 year old record of 9.95. 9.74 is faster than we would have thought possible then, I think. Remarkable.

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