Book Review: The Bolt Supremacy by Richard Moore

Preparation, Preparation, Preparation

Leichtathletik WM 2013 Moskau 100 m Vorlauf

“You start first by reading books on track and field,” advises Stephen Francis, one of the top sprinting coaches in Jamaica. Francis is thorough and draws on his vast knowledge of physiology and biomechanics in devising training programmes for his charges – this sense of attention to detail pervades this book. No Jamaican just goes out and runs and even the national trait of laidbackness may not come quite as easily as it seems. Rather, athletes learn relaxation techniques originally taught to fighter pilots in the US Navy.

Moore starts, conventionally, with Champs, the Jamaican Schools Championships, and paints a colourful picture of this formative experience for many of its sprinters. But he does not make the mistake of thinking that Champs is the complete answer. Similarly, he flags up the oft-repeated genetic theories but does not give them disproportionate weight. And he considers whether drug taking might have a role to play but finds little evidence that doping is more widespread in Jamaica than it is in, say, the United States.

The finish of the mens 400 metres at the Olympic Games, London, 1948. (7649947722)

Jamaican athletics were slow getting out of the blocks. Although G C Foster attempted to compete at the 1908 Olympics, the real breakthrough did not come until 1948 when Arthur Wint and Herb McKenley (above) took gold and silver in the 400m. As Moore explains, McKenley used his knowledge and overseas contacts to increase the speed of improvement, and remains a hero to fans of Jamaican sprinting, including Usain Bolt.

But there has been a more recent burst of acceleration since the Millennium in which Jamaica has been transformed from one of many leading countries into the dominant power in the sport. International track and field evolves rapidly and there have been enough dramatic changes of pace during the last few decades to make it clear that we cannot account for them all with a single glib explanation, such as genetics or Champs.

Moore wisely splits his analysis into different historical periods. His most interesting interviewee is Dennis Johnson, who provides considerable insight into the second half of the twentieth century, while it is Francis himself who illuminates the twenty first. These two important figures form the heart of the book but a strong supporting cast includes Yohan Blake, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and experts from outside of Jamaica, such as the sport scientist Yannis Pitsiladis and the anti-doping crusader, Dick Pound.

Moore succeeds where so many others have failed because he not only describes the thoroughness of the Jamaican approach but he also enacts it, with the quality of his research and his critical reasoning. His interviews are pivotal but he has also listened to Stephen Francis and read widely around the subject, as the extensive bibliography demonstrates. Like Usain Bolt, this book is exciting in part because it is so methodical.

Next week: How badminton went from a British stately home to Indonesia and China

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