End of an Era: Usain Bolt and the 100m Sprint

Usain Bolt has run one of the last 100m sprints of his career and the last in his home country of Jamaica. It was a race held in his honour, with Bolt easily winning in a time of 10.03 seconds. After the race, he performed a lap of honour in front of a packed stadium who had come to see him run, a testament to the support he has built up since he made his first appearance on the world stage in 2002. Bolt has become one of the most well-known athletes in sport and is widely considered to be the fastest sprinter of all time. His exploits are numerous; an eleven-time world champion and an eight-time Olympic gold medallist, Bolt has also held the world record for both the 100m and 200m sprint since 2009. He has received numerous awards, including winning the Laureus ‘World Sportsman of the Year’ award four times. This has undoubtedly made him a role model for all those aspiring to compete in athletics, and his contributions to the 100m in particular are numerous. After announcing his intention to retire at the World Championships in August this year, I thought it would be interesting to explore the history of the 100m and how Usain Bolt has changed the event forever.

The 100m sprint or dash has its origins in a sprinting competition held in ancient Greece, the “stadion”, in which participants had to run the length of an arena (approximately 200 yards or 180 meters). It was a major part of the ancient Olympic games, so much so that it was the only event from 776-724BC. The 100m sprint made its first formal appearance at the beginning of the modern Olympic games in 1896. Until 1928, however, it was an event reserved only for men. It was first won by Thomas Burke (USA) in 12.0 seconds, and from this point onward the race time has become ever faster. This has occurred both due to improvements in human fitness and health as well as changes to the format of the race. In the first 100m in 1896 the sprinters were separated by ropes and started races standing straight up, reducing their top speed. Since then many developments have taken place; synthetic tracks were introduced in 1956, and running clothes and shoes have become lighter and more streamlined. Starting blocks were also used from 1948, allowing runners to get an extra boost at the start of the race.

This has dramatically affected race times. In 1936 Jesse Owens (USA) clocked a time of 10.3 seconds in Berlin, and in 1968 Jim Hines (also USA) was the first sprinter to break the 10-second mark with a time of 9.95 seconds. This was also the year in which electronic timing was introduced to record the event, leading to much more accurate times. The current world record was set by Usain Bolt in 2009 at the World Championships final in Berlin. His time of 9.58 seconds shocked the athletic world and brought Bolt into the international spotlight. The women’s world record has decreased from 13.6 seconds in 1922 to 10.49 seconds, set by Florence Griffith Joyner (USA) in 1988. Throughout this period the 100m sprint has always been one of the highlights of any athletic competition, and as such breaking the world record is seen as a crowning achievement.

After 2009 Bolt failed to best his record-breaking run, yet it can be argued that he didn’t want to. After gaining international recognition he focused on his image as the world’s fastest sprinter. Besides, he was so far ahead of the competition that he could run an average race and still beat his competitors, safe in the knowledge that his record was out of their reach. Bolt’s departure in the summer leaves one question; who will replace him as the star of the 100m? Many have pointed to Trayvon Bromell, an American sprinter. Aged 21, he was the first junior to surpass the 10-second barrier with a time of 9.84 in 2015. He has since competed in the 2016 Olympic games, coming 8th in a competitive field. Amongst other stars, the future of the 100m looks promising.

However, it will be near impossible to match what Bolt has brought to the 100m. What defined his career was not only his records but how he has handled being the world’s fastest man. Most of all, his reign shows how far we have come in our pursuit to push boundaries and run faster than we ever have before. Usain Bolt is a shining example of what we can achieve if we put our minds to it, and I’m sure his last race in August will be an emotional one, not just for Bolt but for all of us who have eagerly watched him over the years.

Further Reading:

How the 100m record has evolved over time

History of sprinting at the Olympics



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