Usain Bolt and sporting objectivity

Competing at the IAAF World Championships in Athletics in recent days, Jamaican superstar Usain Bolt has proven himself to be the fastest runner of the 6.7 billion or so people on the planet.

It could be argued (although I haven’t seen anyone try it), that there may be a man somewhere who is faster than Bolt, someone competing in another sport or an unfulfilled talent. More likely there is a young boy alive who will one day beat Bolt’s record times for 100m and 200m. But for now Usain Bolt is number one. It’s as simple as that.

The objective nature of sporting results distinguishes sport from performance art in particular: the team or athlete who performs better on the day wins. However, in many sports there are external factors such as refereeing decisions which can influence a one-off result, and in ball sports most aspects of the performance can only be measured relative to the opposition. Athletics strips away the external considerations, leaving climatic conditions and the dreaded risk of doping by a competitor as the main factors outside the control of the individual participants. 

And so when Usain Bolt smashed the world records for 100m and 200m in Berlin last week, surpassing his times from Beijing, they were records which any runner could theoretically break in a local race, leaving no doubt about his global pre-eminence. (9.58 seconds for the 100m and 19.19 seconds for the 200m, in case you want to give it a go.)

As Bolt also takes an evident delight in playing to the camera it is no surprise that his exploits have filled the airwaves and front pages from Argentina to Bangladesh via Croatia. He can help athletics reach well beyond its traditional audience and, at the age of 23, looks to be on the way to becoming a global icon.

Just consider: outside the sporting sphere, how many people can objectively be judged the best in the world at what they do? How many of those do something which can be instantly and universally understood, something which most of us have had a go at during our lives?

Usain Bolt’s medals and records have been widely celebrated but it may take a few years before the magnitude of his achievements is fully recognised. All sports fans will be hoping that he stays healthy and motivated for many years to come.

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