The Aesthetics of Sprinting: Comparing the Running Styles of Usain Bolt and Michael Johnson

During Usain Bolt’s post-race interview after dominating the 200 meter final of the 2011 Track and Field World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, he talked about the former American champion Michael Johnson, who was similarly pre-eminent as a 200 and 400 meter runner in the 90s. In his hurried Jamaican English, Bolt reminded viewers that Johnson retired while he was at the top of the sport; a legend, he said, and that was how Bolt wanted to be remembered as well. Each one defined men’s running in their eras. Johnson was the game back then as Bolt is today.

Even during the pre-race introductions, as I watched Bolt prance and mug elaborately as if getting ready for a night out, then step and crouch seriously to his mark, I thought about how his and Johnson’s running styles differed and how the shape of their forms delivered them to the limits of our understanding of what the body is capable of.

Their names say it all.

Usain Bolt, an audacious, electric amalgam of syllables conjured through a violent spark of imagination. The first name is liquid, the U played like the Ooh of surprise, sain like insane, Bolt of lighting bolt. He runs like his name, smooth as molasses stretching from a spoon with an easy speed that can only be described as genius. Genius like the level of intellect. From the gun, each step rockets him forward ever faster until he reaches full speed. From there he swallows distances in lengthy strides. His feet seem to barely make contact with the track’s surface, floating above and discrediting laws of nature.

In slow motion during the 200, NBC showed his eyes glancing to his right as he came out of the turn, checking for Walter Dix, the American runner who came in 2nd.  With Dix well behind, Bolt poured on the mechanics of his stride and his face broke out in expressions of innocent wonderment, joy and swagger. A 6’5 runner with a long gate, he down-shifted and accelerated into a smooth gallop that propelled him past the finish into the Jamaican flag. A swarm of cameras descended on him as he jigged and broke into his lightning bolt pose, left arm stretched diagonally, index pointing to the heavens. His right arm folded, index aligned with his left arm as if he’s drawing back a bow and arrow, aiming it at the moon.

Michael Johnson, a common, practical name, unfussy and unadorned. It’s always Michael Johnson, not Mike. You would never forget it, though you would also never remember it. Uncelebratory and utterly American. He had short legs that worked like pistons, up and down in rapid choppy succession, pounding his shoes into the track so hard the track bounced them back up with greater velocity. His speed was built on pure work. It was blue-collar speed. Johnson’s arms pumped with the same rhythm as his legs, fast and furious. His mouth was the exhaust pipe, eyes straight-ahead unemotional like headlights; his head turned into a pure instrument for breathing. His body was a machine for the production of blinding pace though nothing in its movements suggested forward rush. He won gold in both the 200 and 400 meters in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, setting the 200 meter record that stood until Bolt broke it in the 2009 Berlin World Championships in 19.19 seconds.

Bolt’s running looks like the sound of a whizzing bullet, chasing the wind and never stirring the air, laughing all the way. Johnson shoved air aside like a freight train going downhill, the business of running pressed on his face. Running is pure sport; how fast can you get from here to there with your feet? When Usain Bolt and Michael Johnson run, their churning strides convert their sport into art.