Not in the zone with Usain Bolt
Usain Bolt’s victory in the Olympic 100m final was deeply satisfying. It accorded with the greatness insisted upon by his performances to date. It came in a competition where it appeared a genuine challenger had emerged. It lifted the performance of all the other sprinters fast and powerful enough to make the final.
I have another reason for admiring Bolt. It’s not about his running, his victories or his records. My affection stems from his overturning of orthodoxy. The accepted, the expected behaviour of an athlete about to perform is that which demonstrates focus, a channeling of mental and physical efforts to the challenge ahead. By contrast, Usain Bolt, while waiting to be called to his mark, just horses around.
Before Bolt’s emergence, the build-up to the 100m final involved eight serious, tense men pacing, stretching, puffing out chests, pulling faces, staring into the middle distance. As their name was announced over the stadium PA, each sprinter would acknowledge the crowd. Apart from that, they were focusing, centring, getting into the zone. Take a look at the last Bolt-less Olympic 100m final in Athens.
Bolt shattered this orthodoxy. He runs faster than the rest without, to the viewer, the pained mental preparation. There’s something of the Laurence Olivier dropping straight into character, while the method actors struggle to conjure the right emotion.
Cricketers, particularly batsmen, are concerned with mental preparation. Concentration is key – a view endorsed by the Laws of the game, as many of us learned this week, when Umpire Davis called a dead ball when Steven Finn broke the non-striker’s wicket in his delivery stride. Davis deemed that action distracted Graeme Smith, the batsman, who had edged to slip.
Batting is a test of concentration. Players adopt different approaches, from the evidently physical – Trott’s obsessive scraping at his guard – to the internal – Brearley’s humming of Beethoven. Mike Atherton, writing about his eleven hour defiance of South Africa at Johannesburg in 1995 makes this observation:
The key to concentration, and therefore to playing long innings, is the ability to focus intensely for short periods of time and then switch off completely.
And by short period of time, Atherton means each individual delivery from bowler’s run up until the ball is dead, which he estimates at seven seconds. (Coincidentally, the point in most 100m races when Bolt, far ahead of the field, loses focus and waves, skips or jogs.) Atherton doesn’t say what switching off means other than conserving energy, but it was of course nowhere near the spectacle of joy and play that Bolt provides minutes before his contests.
Surprisingly though, despite being such different personalities, engaged in very different sports, Atherton and Bolt may have hit on the same solution. And it’s one that requires the ability to switch into game mode instantly. None of which would mean very much, in Bolt’s case, were he then not able to run faster than any other man. But I enjoy his achievement all the more for the joy he shows right up until summoned to his marks.