It might be one of the most-watched events at the Olympics every single year, despite barely breaching ten seconds in length. The Men’s 100-meter final has continued to engage the public as the truest test of the male athlete’s speed. As a race, it's a long enough distance to reach a maximum speed, with less reliance on stamina than the longer distances. The perfect, adrenaline-fuelled frenzy of activity to pinpoint the best of the best.
Of all the 100-meter finals that have been run, Berlin in 2009 is likely one of the most-watched. This is because it was the iconic race in which Usain Bolt redefined the sport with a world record time of 9.58 seconds. This accomplishment was set while he raced against some of the finest sprinters at the time including American Tyson Gay and Jamaican Asafa Powell.
Bolt shaved off a tenth of a second on his previous best time, the largest recorded improvement margin since the digital timers were first introduced. Gay was beaten by 0.13 seconds that day, a stark gap by the 100-meter standards. It’s been 12 years since then, and with the Tokyo Olympics' 100m men's race now run, nobody managed to top Bolt's time, yet again. But, if anyone is likely to beat that record, when will they?
The Tokyo 2021 Olympics 100-meter finals were, for lack of a better phrase, incredibly open this year. America’s Trayvon Bromell was a clear favorite, after having a remarkable year and setting a strong time of 9.8 seconds, which was the fourth-fastest 100-meter time since 2016, only to fail to qualify in the semi-finals.
According to the final figures released before the race from online sports betting platforms, Canadian Andre De Graase (10/1), South Africa’s Akani Simbine (7/1) - who set the African record with a 9.84 second run in Hungary in July 2021 - and British sprinter Zharnel Hughes (16/1) were some of the most likely favorites, only for underdog Italian Lamont Jacobs to claim gold with a 9.8 second time. Simbine couldn't better his time set in Hungary, running 100m in 9.93 seconds as he finished fourth. It's a race that loves to upset the odds.
The likelihood of anyone running a sub 9.6 second time would have be a major overperformance, based on the times recorded by all the participants this year. To hit anything better than Bolt’s 9.58 would, quite frankly, defy all the odds. Although Bolt’s own WR run defied the numbers, too.
Luís Amaral is a professor of chemical and biological engineering and was the man who decided to try and calculate the probability of the 100-meter record being beaten. His findings would go on to only add to Bolt's remarkable achievement.
Between the years 1965 to 2005, the 100-meter record time improved slowly, falling from 10.06 seconds to 9.77, which was only a marginal 0.007-second improvement year-on-year, according to the work of mathematician David Sumpter. He took that logic and applied it to breaking the sub 9.60 second time, which, therefore, should have been done by about 2030. And then, a mere four years after that, Bolt did it, over two decades ahead of schedule.
Sumpter’s work also predicted that Bolt’s record would be likely broken in another 20 years, however, Professor Amaral actually recalculated to predict it could take almost 230 years to see it done. His prediction was based on the probability of Bolt breaking his own record, which decreases with age and frequency of recorded runs per year, as well as the spread of sprinters’ times over some years.
Professor Amaral worked out that it would take 23,000 more races before the probability of the 9.58 time being broken outweighed the probability of it not being broken. Assuming there are approximately ten major, officially-recorded runs per year, we reach our 230-year figure. And yet, as we have to concede, sprinters like Bolt have defied the odds before.
Bolt is 34 years old now, a once-in-a-generation athlete who set three of the five sub-9.7 second times for the 100 meters ever recorded. Amaral would go on to predict that seeing a 9.7 second 100-meter time again is likely to happen once every 9 years, or so. What Amaral has conceded we can’t account for is the emergence of another standout athlete. After all, the likes of South African athletes such as Wayde van Niekerk have endearingly already been hailed as the "Next Usain Bolt".
With Simbine and van Niekerk 27 and 29 years of age, respectively, the new few years of their careers are crucial. They have proven that they can mix it with the best, but they just need that final push to cement their names among the best of all time.
A natural successor to Bolt could be right around the corner, ready to defy those odds and take the pinnacle of a human’s athletic achievement to an even higher level. The odds of witnessing that moment at the Tokyo Olympics were low, admittedly, but it was never impossible. It is this fact that will keep fans watching, as everybody wants to see the world’s fastest men compete. But, more importantly, everybody wants to witness the next record-breaker.