Headline or Footnote? Black or White? 100 Meters, 10 Seconds

Rahil DevganCorrespondent IJuly 27, 2010

Standing a shade under six feet and three inches tall, Christophe Lemaitre has a gangly disposition at best; his 160 pound lithe frame belies the speed and momentum that it generates across the course of a hundred meters.

Yet the 20-year-old Frenchman from the Rhones-Alps region could have never imagined that no matter how fast he ran that fateful race at the French National Championships in Valence over a fortnight ago, the news of his race would travel around the world twice as fast.

You see, athletics has those fixed benchmarks that most sports lack—the measurement that sends a clear message to the outside world of how elite you really are. Until recently, the 100 meter sprint used to have that mark and it stood at 10 seconds for the longest period of time.

At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Jim Hines might have found himself a lot more famous had Bob Beamon not jumped the most astonishing jump in athletics history (relive it here ). The American ran the 100 meter sprint in 9.95 seconds thus becoming the first person to officially do so.

From then on, the benchmark sank slowly and steadily but occasionally spurred on by the arrival of some of the finest athletes in modern history and spearheaded by the fittest of them all—Carl Lewis.

At the World Championships in Tokyo 1991, Lewis won a race (watch it here ) that might have signaled the turning point in the men's 100 meter sprint when he led five more sprinters under the 10 second barrier. Among them were compatriots Leroy Burrell, Dennis Mitchell, as well as Frankie Fredericks and Linford Christie.

What followed was a flurry of record-setting times separated by fractions of a second. Ben Johnson illegally dipped under 9.80, Greene finally set it at 9.79 while Montgomery lowered it much like Johnson did. Along came Powell, Gay, and the new pack of prancing cheetahs all daring to go under the 9.70 mark.

And then a taller, leaner, and fitter specimen reared his head out of this coalition and promptly assaulted athletics' most prized record claiming it as his own till date.

The most surprising fact in this brief historical narrative is that in the glorious story of the 10 second barrier, not once was there passing mention of the Caucasian man!

Lematire changed that over a fortnight ago and that's precisely why he's been headline worthy to much of Europe.

To his credit, he obviously realizes that if you join a club as its 71st member, the club may not be all that elite anymore but nevertheless, he chose to leave the whiteness" out and instead state that, "One has to run under 10 seconds in order to be part of the world's best. I will be recognized as the first white man to run it—but today is mainly historical for myself."

He then went on to say that the talk about white sprinters was absurd, that he "did what he had to do," and that "this story is a bit too much. I don't like it."

It's trivial enough to claim that black athletes are physically and genetically built better and therefore dominate the track but the question here is not about the black athlete racing down hundred meters in under 10 seconds, it's about the white athlete doing so! 

Of the 71 members in the 10-second club, 53 are from North and Central America while 11 are African. Furthermore, 33 are American while Jamaica and Nigeria have contributed eight a piece. The demographics are consistent enough.

The 100 meter dash is athletic's and perhaps sport's greatest prize. The best gets to title himself the fastest man on earth but for this, he requires a split-second mental reaction, power-packed calves, quads, and thighs to build up the acceleration and an unparalleled upper body composition to extend that peak momentum.

With all the advances in nutritional intake and constant upgrades to the coaching manual, Lemaitre's run somehow seems like it came a few years too late.

Why has it taken over four decades for a Caucasian man to slip under the 10 second barrier? And now that he's done it (to borrow Tom Fordyce's conundrum), should it be an athletic headline or an athletic footnote?

The good news is that Lemaitre joined a running club only five years ago and doesn't consider himself to be a professional athlete yet. At 74 kilograms, his upper body strength falls short of the mold that an elite sprinter has and his technique at best is still conventionally flawed. His start is poor and his transition to total uprightness comes far too quickly with arms flailing everywhere in the process.

There seems to be enough room for improvement which is why we might see the finished product a good two tenths of a second faster, if not more.  

Unfortunately, with the Jamaican leader of that coalition of cheetahs blurring past the finish line in 9.58 seconds (and threatening to go faster!), Lemaitre might well find himself a constant ten feet outside the photo frame no matter how fast he runs. 

Isn't that the way it's always been?