As the 2015 World Championships, were concluding, I heard one commentator speculate about how 100 and 200 gold medalist Usain Bolt would fare against 5k and 10k gold medalist Mo Farah in a 600m race. (Or maybe it was 500m, but it was clearly intended to be the “crossover” distance where the two would be competitive). When I heard that, I experienced deja vu, because back in 2008, there was a fairly serious discussion of having Bolt face the world’s most accomplished distance runner at the time, Kenenisa Bekele, at a “neutral” distance. Seven years ago to the day, I critiqued that suggestion, and am reposting that critique since it seems apropos today applied to Bolt v. Farah.
[First published September 4, 2008]
Bolt v. Bekele? That’s a TERRIBLE Idea!
Would the two most celebrated track athletes from the World Championships agree to race each other at a neutral distance? According to USA Today, there is talk of staging a match race between Usain Bolt and Keninisa Bekele at a distance between 600m and 800m:
As a betting proposition and outright spectacle, the idea must have a lot of appeal. Usain Bolt has achieved a level of celebrity rarely seen for a track athlete. Bekele, though less flamboyant and less well-known, is perhaps the greatest distance runner of all time.
And debates about how a sprinter would fare against a distance runner probably date back to the first time homo sapiens drew a line on the ground with a stick and said “race you to the tree across the field…”
But as much fun as it is to think about, wouldn’t this actually be a terrible race? Wouldn’t both runners looks somewhat… well, HUMAN… racing over a distance that favors neither? Why would we want to see Bolt run through 600m and then start struggling? Why would we want to see Bekele fall 20m behind at the start? Wouldn’t such a race diminish the stature of both runners?
Oh, I get it… this is a plot by the distance runner to grab some of the fame from the sprinter. This is also the way it always is — the sprinter is “the world’s fastest man” and gets all the glory and really high-profile endorsement opportunities; the distance runner feels resentment so he points out to everyone that if the sprinter were forced to run a lap or two longer, well, all that speed wouldn’t do him any good against the transcendent aerobic fitness of the 5K/10K guy.
It’s a trap, Usain, it’s a trap! Don’t take the bait, no matter how much they offer you. if you decide to run the 400, that’s great. Train for it and set a WR there, too, but don’t get suckered into a middle distance race against Bekele. Even if you win, it won’t be pretty. Even if you manage to hold off the hard charging Ethiopian, that aura of invincibility will be gone, the perfect stride breaking down and dissolving in a flood of lactic acid.