If you’re a genuine lover of sport, chances are that you dropped whatever you were doing and got yourself in front of a television set by 9.40 p.m. last Saturday.
Usain Bolt does that to you. Like Muhammad Ali in his heyday, like Viv Richards in his pomp, like Diego Maradona at his most magnificent (1986 World Cup), Bolt isn’t just a great athlete. He can make time stand still.
I doubt if the women’s 200m attracted the same kind of attention worldwide. And that’s what grates most about modern-day athletics. In her own way, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who also won three gold medals in Moscow, is as great an athlete as Bolt. But unlike her Jamaican compatriot, who’s the same age, Fraser-Pryce is unlikely to ever break world records and have us reaching for superlatives.
Veronica Campbell-Brown, another Jamaican who won the 200m gold at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, explained the enhanced focus on the men’s best when she said: “It’s based on the fact the world record in the 100m and 200m for men is reachable. It is hard for me to think about the world record.”
Consider the facts. The oldest men’s track record [not counting the hurdles and steeplechase events] belongs to Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj, an unquestioned all-time great who ran the 1,500m in 3:26:00 back in Rome (1998). On the women’s side, apart from the 5,000m record set by the brilliant Tirunesh Dibaba in 2008, every track record dates back to at least 1993. Some of them, like Marita Koch’s 47.6 in the 400m, are forever out of reach.
Fraser-Pryce has run 10.75 or better four times in her career, with a best of 10.70. That is still more than two-tenths of a second outside Florence Griffith-Joyner’s world record set in 1988.
Till that season, Griffith-Joyner’s best times were 10.96 in the 100m and 21.96 in the 200m.
In the year she won three Olympic golds and shattered world records, her times in those events improved by 0.47s and 0.62s. Anyone with even a cursory understanding of athletics could tell you that such improvement is dubious, if not impossible, especially at the age of 29.
Look at Bolt. From the time he was a teenager, it was obvious that he was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime athlete.
At 16, he ran 20.58 for the 200m. A year later, he had whittled it down to 20.25. When he obliterated Michael Johnson’s record in Berlin four years ago, it came as no surprise to anyone, least of all Johnson.
Contrast that with Carl Lewis’s reaction after Flo-Jo’s exploits. “Her physical appearance alone, muscles popping everywhere, made a lot of people wonder,” Lewis wrote in his autobiography. “Then there was the voice, much deeper than it had been.” As for Koch, no other woman has ever gone under 48 seconds.
Only Marie-José Pérec (48.25 at the Atlanta Olympics) has come within a second of it in the last two decades. Koch, like Griffith-Joyner before her death at the age of 38, always denied doping, but Doping-Dokumente, a book written in 1991 by Werner Franke and Brigitte Berendonk, gave details of Oral-Turinabol doses that had been given to Koch and many others in the years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The revelations also included a letter from Koch which complained that Bärbel Wöckel, twice Olympic champion over 200m, was being given stronger doses of the steroids because her uncle was president of Jenapharm, the company that fuelled the all-conquering East German athletics machine.
The next time you watch Fraser-Pryce, give her the respect she deserves. She’s probably the best there’s ever been.
(Dileep Premachandran is Editor-in-Chief of Wisden India)