Re-reading some stuff from Minus the Shooting (I was in the mood to read high quality sports writing today) and browsing the track and field results for this weekend (scintillating in Des Moines for NCAAs; poor due to weather at the NYC Diamond League meet) got me thinking about track and field and my relation to it as a competitor and a spectator. A long-ish post on that might appear at some point, but I had to split off this section on Usain Bolt as it grew unwieldy in the piece as a whole.
One of the themes that the writers of Minus the Shooting spent a great deal of time reflecting upon last summer was the psychological aspect of the World Cup, especially in the case of England's repeated failures and apparent compulsion to fail, but also in some rather brilliant posts on Brazil and their early exit from the tournament. Essentially, Mark Fisher's major point re: Brazil (see here, here, and here; see also Loki's comments here, here, and here; finally, see Digitalben's comments here) was that they'd already won the World Cup in terms of the pre-tournament narratives, and when reality failed to match up to those narratives--when Brazil discovered that they'd not only not already won the World Cup, but that they'd have to play (and beat) teams that did not consider them to have already won the World Cup--Brazil collapsed like, in the words of Eddie Izzard, a flan in a cupboard. Another key insight: England seems to continually berate its team for not being Brazil c.1970, even as the Brazilians are filled with the anxiety of not wanting to be Brazil (and not being Brazil) c.1970.
Thinking about Usain Bolt, I can't help but wonder if the same thing might happen to him. Since 2008 (and especially following the IAAF's reinvention of itself c.2008/2009 as basically a massive publicity machine for Usain Bolt), the narrative before any race Bolt runs is that he's already won it. There's never any doubt that he will win, and, indeed, the mere suggestion that anyone could really challenge him is presented as laughable. The athletes themselves seemed not to believe it possible. There was already a difference in 2009 from 2008, though. Where Bolt's performance in Beijing was quite simply sublime, a massive vindication of Bolt as a championship performer (what he's touted as today despite a somewhat spotty record in this regard prior to 2008--look back at the commentary surrounding his performance in the World Championship at Osaka in 2007 for evidence of this) and a breathtaking spectacle, his performance in Berlin in 2009 (while superior in terms of his marks) was less thrilling, more mechanistic, the culmination of a narrative that had been written at the start of the year and never deviated from throughout the course of the season. Part of this was the effect of familiarity: while I expected him to win in Beijing based on his season up to that point, I never expected the absolute brilliance of his 100m final (the joy on his face and the audacity of his celebration twenty metres before the finish line is still thrilling to see) or the display of sheer force of will that was his 200m final; in Berlin, though, I expected both his victories and both World Records. Ho hum. I should also that part of the joy of 2008 was the schadenfreude of witnessing po-faced Michael Johnson eating, on camera, his obvious displeasure at Bolt breaking his 200m record after Johnson's declaration earlier in the week that the record was, essentially, unbreakable.
2010 saw yet another development: the narrative of already achieved victory failed to come true. Tyson Gay beat Bolt, and he beat him conclusively. This was not like the narrow loss Bolt had suffered to Asafa Powell, also in Stockholm, prior to the Olympics in 2008. The narrative proved false. Now, there's nothing particularly surprising about the second fastest man in history beating the fast man in history, even with the difference in their personal bests: 0.11 seconds in the 100m and 0.39 seconds in the 200m (both an absolute eternity in sprinting terms). However, this loss was significant enough for Bolt to shut down his season following it, citing injury. I'm not suggesting that Bolt wasn't injured (indeed, if 2011 has told us anything so far, it's that neither Bolt nor Gay will ever be healthy for a full season again. Fairly well-known and respected commentators were already making this claim in 2009. It's simply not feasible for the best guys to stay healthy running at the level they are currently running. Some were estimating the career [not the peak, the entire career] of a world-class sprinter in the “Bolt Age” at 2 years), but I think the injury had psychological and metaphysical elements to go along with its physical symptoms. Bolt was no longer unbeatable (not that he ever really was) and suddenly he had not already won every race he entered (not that he ever had).
Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this was already apparent before the injury that ended his season: the talk about his freewheeling, party-loving persona was already beginning to fade. Bolt spent less time talking about staying out all night and dancing--though the press continued to do so unabated, even as the events they referred to seemed to recede more and more into the past (there was a distinct sense that Bolt c.2010 was less interesting that Bolt c.2008, so Bolt c.2010 was simply replaced by a constant repetition of Bolt c.2008, his own simulacrum constructed while the “real” Bolt continued to provide reasons for that simulacrum to exist: namely, running [and winning] races)--and more time talking about his discipline, how hard he worked, how many changes he'd made to his lifestyle, how much harder he was training now, etc., etc. In essence, even as his opponents struggled to become more and more like him--had dancing in front of one's blocks ever been as popular as it was in 2009?--Bolt was doing his best to become less like himself. He was starting to resemble, in fact, his greatest opponent, Tyson Gay.
This point was made clearer when Bolt finally reemerged, after not racing for over a year, at the end of May. He had a new hairstyle and a new, more muscular, physique. He still had his famous smile, but he seemed to be doing his best not to be Usain Bolt. After a profile of Gay revealed his discipline and focus--his dedication to track seems almost monastic; certainly, it's a far cry from the wild hedonism of Bolt's amazing 2008--Bolt made an appearance in which he was explicitly compared (with some dismay) to Gay: he was quiet and demure, politely sipping a drink rather than dancing with two in his hand as he'd done before (see here). The point seemed clear: Bolt did not want to be Usain Bolt anymore. He was, perhaps, tired of being Usain Bolt. What seems more likely is that he realized the danger of continually being Usain Bolt. How could he continue to win when the already destroyed narrative continued to be presented as the script he must follow: Usain Bolt must not lose. He must win, and win impressively. What human, and Bolt's favourite line throughout 2011 has been that he “is only human,” could possibly live up to such a narrative? Bolt further underscored this point by noting that, for the first time in his senior career, he felt nervous in anticipation of the race. But nervous of what? Of defeat? He'd been beaten before. Of failing to live up to the impossible demands of the narrative of Usain Bolt? The latter is most likely, in my opinion. How could a defeat, and the implications w/r/t to Usain Bolt the more-than-human athlete, not be a massive psychological setback at this point?
His first race, a 100m showdown against fellow Jamaican and former world record holder Asafa Powell (I'll not pain you with my own agonized and agonizing thoughts on Powell, my favourite athlete, whose sole function in the universe seems to be to deny himself and his fans the victory in a major championship that his talent so clearly deserves), revealed Bolt to be in decidedly average form. He won in 9.91 seconds to Powell's 9.93, in a race that Powell once again gave away in the final metres. At no point in the race did Bolt look like the man he'd been in 2008 (or 2009). An insightful internet commentator pointed out that despite a terrible race, Bolt had won and run a good time (though not good, obviously, when your personal best is 9.58 seconds and you are judged solely according to that number). He went on to note that the real question has become at what point is it reasonable to expect Bolt not to break ten seconds (discounting the early rounds of championships) in the 100m? Bolt's next race was another 9.91, though with less favourable wind. His victory was easier, though still not as impressive as we've come to expect (through continuously being told to expect it) from Bolt. His first 200m in thirteen months was last week. He beat distinctly second-rate competition and ran a world lead, 19.87 seconds (the obvious question now: at what point is it reasonable to expect Bolt not to break twenty seconds in the 200m?).
More importantly, perhaps, is that he seemed to buy into the narrative again: leading up to the race, he sounded more like Bolt c.2009 than 2011. While he continues to preach hard work and a “one step at a time” kind of attitude, he also seemed to not-so-subtly suggest that he could not be beat at 200m in his pre-race comments. With Gay's announcement that he's 90% sure he will not compete in the 200m at the World Championship, Bolt's victory seems to be a near guarantee. It's difficult to imagine that anyone can beat Bolt. Indeed, at this point it seems almost as if the World Championship has already happened and Bolt has already won. Even if he's begun to believe in his own myth again--and his comment after his 200m that he's yet to begin his speed work for the season suggests just that to me, a kind of indirect “come and get me, boys” to the competition--I'm still willing to tip an upset, though. What happens if he sees the ghost of 2008 or 2009 dancing down the track, arms outstretched, seemingly miles of open space between him and the nearest opponent and he finds himself failing to do likewise? What happens if he never regains that mid-race burst (or that vicious bend) that so effectively propelled him to victory in Beijing and Berlin (and his races in Rome and Oslo suggest that he lacks just those things, along with anything resembling a decent start, right now)? Can Bolt play against the script? Can he succeed when (if) reality asserts itself against the myth of his indomitable self?
Consider the following: Gay ran a world leading time last weekend in the 100m (9.79 seconds--an (in)auspicious time: Maurice Green's world record, but also Ben Johnson's world record in Seoul in 1988), his fastest start to a season ever. In contrast, Bolt is running around the same times he ran in 2009 prior to Berlin in the 100m. It's not hard to imagine that Bolt will round into shape in time for August and win his third major title in the 100m. However, it's equally easy to imagine him failing to do so and losing. In fact, at this point I can't see him winning the 100m. If the dancing and the lightning bolt pose are no longer enough to transform him into a superman, if he is no longer a superman and is struggling against being synonymous with a superman, I'll pick an upset that right now doesn't look very much like an upset to me. Indeed, at this point, I'm convinced that if Bolt doesn't lose in 2011 in Daegu, he'll lose in 2012 in London and (re)experience the ignominy (for him) of the minor medals. Now, to state the obvious: Bolt doesn't need to worry about anything other than one week in South Korea this August. He's the only man in the 100m or 200m fields who can say this. Given Bolt's success in 2008 and 2009, and the success of his training partners during the same time period, it's safe to say that his coach, Glen Mills, knows a thing or two about having his athletes ready to go when it matters most. I wonder, though: can Bolt win not being Usain Bolt? Can he find a way to run the race he's in and not the race the ghost of his past success is running? Are the two really distinguishable, for Bolt and for us?