White men can’t run

BBC Sport | Powell smashes 100m world record

“Jamaican Asafa Powell broke the world 100m record by clocking 9.74 secs at the IAAF Grand Prix in Rieti, Italy.”

I remember Ben Johnson breaking the 100m world record at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, almost 20 years ago now. It was an amazing sight. He was so far ahead of the others it was unbelievable, especially for a 100m race. It was almost like one of the dads had joined in the kids race on Sports Day. Of course he was later found to have been on steroids at the time, but that race has stuck in my mind all these years, in part because of what happened later but also because of the time – 9.79s and the lead that Johnson had. It was staggering how far ahead he was of the others and the fact that in the aftermath of the doping the world record went back to 9.93, was a great testament to how much better drugs can make an athlete.

When he made his comeback in 1991 and took part in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 Johnson again demonstrated just what a difference the years on drugs had made. I had expected him to get to the final and probably win, still remembering that final in 1988, and seriously thought him a danger to Christie, that was until I saw him race. You could use many words and phrases to sum up his performance – jaded, over the hill, lacklustre but the one that really sums it up is – clean. I don’t think that there is any doubt that Johnson was clean at the 1992 Olympics.

In 1993 he was disqualified for life after again testing positive for drugs. He just couldn’t compete with the other athletes without illegal aid. Drugs and Johnson doesn’t end there though. He went on to become a football coach for Colonel Gadhafi’s son in 1999. He was pretty successful as Gadhafi’s son went on to join an Italian club before being sacked after one game for, you’ve guessed it, failing a drugs test!

As I said though that race left such an indelible mark on my mind that I thought that without drugs it would be impossible for someone to run that fast again. I assumed that Johnson’s expunged world record would never be equalled, that it was the pinnacle of human speed over 100m and would be impossible to equal without steroids or some other kind of artificial aid.

It seems silly now though, not only was the record equalled in 1999 (albeit 11 years after it was set), but it was broken in 2002, ironically by another drugs cheat, Tim Montgomery and then properly in 2005 by Asafa Powell (and equalled several times by Powell and by Justin Gatlin), before being broken again today. I still find it amazing that the records set by Carl Lewis and Calvin Smith, who were at the zenith of their sport 20 years ago are now so regularly beaten. Have training and preparation become so much better, or is there another reason?

For instance Asafa Powell who broke the world record today with a time of 9.74s in one race, also ran 9.78s in another, yet he only managed to run 9.96 and finish third at the World Championships two weeks ago. Either one of today’s times would have been enough to gain him first place a fortnight ago. Now call me cynical but there used to be saying years ago, that the reason that so many records were broken outside of major championships was because there was less drugs testing than at the big events, could this still be the case?

If not then I am seriously beginning to wonder just how fast a man can run.

Anyway the world record may be getting lower and lower but there is one 100m milestone that seems to be unbreakable. You may, or perhaps may not, be surprised to learn that officially no white man has ever run under 10 seconds. The man who has come closest (and technically succeeded) was a Pole named Marian Woronin who in 1984 ran 9.992 seconds in the 100m in Warsaw, unfortunately for Woronin this was officially rounded up to 10s dead. Other than that the next closest white man was Pietro Mennea in Mexico City in 1979 who ran 10.01, however that was at altitude. Both times were 20-25 years ago, white men it seems, just aren’t getting any faster.

20 years ago it would have meant something for a white man to break the 10s barrier, today it probably wouldn’t even guarantee a top 3 placing and certainly wouldn’t even get them into the top twelve fastest sprinters of all time.

In the ever decreasing 100m times, white men are getting left behind.

There is an update to this post here.

15 responses to “White men can’t run

  1. Pingback: Fastest White Man « Charlie’s Space

  2. I think that there is now a glimpse of hope (great white hope?) on the horizon.
    Bolt has turned the notion that sprinters need to be compact, built like boxers & under 6″2 on its head. So this will open up the field for some good white athletes who were considered perhaps too tall for the 100m to give it a try.
    Some of the guys that would have turned to rowing may now try out for the sprints, and if they emulate the cadence of Bolt (and also Powell) they may enjoy some success.
    It might be interesting to watch over the next 5 – 10 years to see how this pans out.

  3. Good point, is the lack of sub 10s white sprinters due to the perceived barrier or the fact that it really is a physical impossibility?

    Sadly I am not as optimistic as you and think that is just isn’t physically possible, although I hope I am wrong. As you say, time will tell.

  4. Hi !!

    There is one year ago I told you about Christophe Lemaitre who would be the first to run a sub-10.

    Today he run 10’04 for the Junior European Championships which a european junior record.

    He is only 19, the wind was + 0,2.

    I come back just to give you that information 🙂

    Don’t forget Ramil Gulyiev who did 10’08 (+1,3 m/s).

    Christophe is amazing.

    Maybe in Berlin….

    Bye !!

    • Thanks, I had heard about LeMaitre, quite impressive. I still don’t believe that he will make the 10s barrier, but I will certainly be watching him in Berlin, and hoping that he does.

  5. Ramil Gulyiev is amazing too.

    200 m : 20″04 (he is only 19)

  6. There has been much speculation about physical differences between black and white runners, but no facts. The only fact that has been established, was found after comparing kenyan and danish long distance runners, the kenyans consistantly outrunning the danes. Everything is the same, it seemed, until they had the runners put their legs in a bucket of water. The kenyans displaced less water in the bucket, an average of 450 grams or a pound, when stepping into a bucket from the knee down. That’s a pound less to move every step.

    • I’ve never heard that before, but I have heard reference to blacks having a higher muscle density than whites, i.e. more muscle and power for less weight, or something along those lines.

      That is what apparently makes them fast runners, but poor swimmers. I am not sure how that would work at distance running, surely less weight means less muscle and therefore less power? There also must be a point when muscle and weight etc reach an optimum balance? As several white distance runners have times in the all time top ten it can’t be as big a benefit as in say the 100m.

  7. “I’ve never heard that before, but I have heard reference to blacks having a higher muscle density than whites…”

    Apparently, there has been much less white runners’ density on track since mid 80’s, when Africans started to enter the sport in great masses. Until 1993/1994, they haven’t run much faster than whites in the 5-10 km, and they actually ran slower in the 800-1500 m than white runners one decade before. Since whites disappeared from track and their times regressed 15-20 years back, Africans were left alone and since late 80’s, they have been competing with each other.

    Furthermore, with the growing number of EPO users being caught, we now start to understand that many of the African running stars from the mid and late 90’s were simply EPO cheats. Mr. Mourhit, a member of this wonderful generation of world-record breakers, was caught in 2002, and Mr. Khalid Boulami, brother of another drug cheat Brahim Boulami, very probably didn’t run on a turtle soup, too.

    As a result of numerous positive tests of North African cheaters (e.g. Ramzi, Chouki, Saidi-Sief), their number on track decreased significantly in recent years. In Berlin 2009, they won only one medal, which has been their worst result since WCh 1983.

  8. I am a white american and i just started running-im 16 i clock a 12 second 100 meter [i know its bad lol] but i can tell you i only clocked about 350 miles last year and about 3 hours of training a day.my times are unremarkable but i know in my body i havnt tapped much of my potential yet.im ramping up to five hours of training this year and hope to at least get an extra second out of it.i belive that 10.00 is a headgame and thats why a whit person hasnt been able to break it yet.football,basket ball and base ball are the popular sports in america today and running is looked upon as wimpy here.but i dont care i love to run and i have a few years to get under 10.any tips on anything related to running would be great.

  9. Thanks for the comment Scott.

    I was at school with two county sprinters, both of whom could run the hundred in 12 (and one them was black), so that is a pretty good time. Especially if you’ve only just started.

    I am no expert, nor a coach, but if I were to give you some advice, it would be to forget the 100m for now and just concentrate on the 200m. Everyone loves the 100m, but you’ll be far more competitive at your age at the 200m, and it gives you far more room to develop.

    It certainly worked for a young Jamaican named Bolt.

  10. Hi,

    I’m the first guy who talked about Christophe Lemaitre here.

    He set a new 60m : 6’55.

    New U21 french record

    Last year His PB was 6’64.

    Just to keep your informed.

    Vive la France

    Vive Lemaitre.

  11. And I was right !

  12. It is racist to care about color in this way. Speed has no color. Neither do drugs. If you were not racist, then you would not care about the skin color of the competitors. It is almost Bastille Day. How about a little liberty, equality & fraternity?

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