Usain St. Leo Bolt, at only 26 years of age, has already cemented himself as arguably the greatest sprinter of all time.
He is sole owner of three world records: 9.58 seconds over 100-metres, 19.19 seconds over 200-metres and as the anchor runner, 36.84 seconds in the 4 x 100-metre relay. He is also the only man to win both the 100- and 200-metre races in consecutive Olympic Games.
What makes Usain Bolt so fast? His competitors, fans and the rest of the world would like to know. In fact, in recent years, especially since the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games when Jamaica won 11 track and field medals, six of them gold (three of which belong to Bolt), Jamaica’s National Track and Field Program has received increased international attention and curiosity.
Scientists and researchers of varied backgrounds have taken on the challenge of discovering the secret of Jamaica’s track success. Researchers from Canadian universities are studying some of Jamaica’s plants, fruits and vegetables. Some suspect it’s something in the soil.
Does Bolt’s 6’5” frame, with long limbs, give him an advantage? He takes only 41 strides to cover 100-metres. His much shorter competitors take an average of 46. Historically, Bolt’s physical stature is a departure from the rule in terms of world-class, 100-metre and 200-metre sprinters who generally (with exceptions like 6’0” Donovan Bailey and 6’2” Carl Lewis) are shorter, under 6 feet tall.
What about scoliosis? Can a bone abnormality offer an advantage?
Scoliosis is the abnormal curvature of the spine. Usain Bolt was born with scoliosis. Canadian Sports Hall of Fame inductee and Olympic gold medal sprinter, Bruny Surin, is great at running the corner and as such was usually the third runner in the 4×100-metre relay.
A number of track athletes I have spoken to have told me that Bruny has a short left leg, a bone abnormality, which makes running a tight corner a little easier.
So can a bone abnormality offer an advantage? Is the secret of Bolt’s speed related to his scoliosis?
Scoliosis is typically classified as either congenital (15 per cent, caused by vertebral anomalies present at birth); idiopathic (65 per cent, cause unknown, sub-classified as infantile, juvenile, adolescent, or adult, according to when onset occurred); or neuromuscular (10 per cent, having developed as a secondary symptom of another condition, such as spina bifida, cerebral palsy, spinal muscular atrophy, or physical trauma).
Scoliosis usually occurs in children and youth. It can appear as early as age three but is more commonly detected between ages up to 14. It is more common in girls and it runs in families. In most cases, there is no known cause for scoliosis and so long as the abnormal curvature is not severe, most people with scoliosis do not have any symptoms.
When symptoms exist the most common symptoms are lower back pain, back fatigue with prolonged sitting or standing, difficulty breathing (severe cases) and low self-esteem associated with the impact scoliosis can have on your posture.
Scoliosis can be fairly easy to detect. In my clinic I perform a routine physical examination of each patient which can help identify signs of scoliosis. Uneven shoulders or pelvis/hips can be a sign. You can look at the exposed back and see a characteristic “S” or “C” curve of the spine. Asking a person to bend over, knees together as you look from behind often reveals an abnormal curvature of the spine or a hump if the ribs are involved.
Sometimes low back scoliosis is actually a compensation for another bone abnormality such as a short leg. If we take Bruny Surin as an example, if his left leg is significantly shorter than his right, when standing you will expect his left hip to be lower than his right.
His lumbar (lower back) spine will likely compensate by bending towards the short side (in this case the left) and then back towards the longer side (the right). The right shoulder is likely to be lower than the left as well. This is the body and the spine’s structural compensation in an effort to ensure the head is as level as possible.
Radiographs (x-rays) of the spine provide a definitive determination of the severity of a spine with scoliosis allowing the health professional to actually measure the degree of the curve. Once detected, treatment options for scoliosis will vary depending on the symptoms, the degree of the curve, if the individual is still growing and their physical activity level.
Mild curves (less than 20 degrees) in individuals without symptoms may require only monitoring for progression of the curve. Moderate curves (25-45 degrees) in persons experiencing some symptoms may require scoliosis specific, rehabilitative exercises and the use of a back brace.
With severe curves (45 degrees or greater), surgical intervention may be the best option. In these cases you halt the progression of the curve by surgically inserting and attaching metal rods to the vertebrae (spinal bones). Over the years I have had patients in all three categories.
According to reports, Usain Bolt’s scoliosis was detected in his youth and it has periodically contributed to or been the cause of lower back pain. He currently seeks care on a regular basis to help minimize any pain and keep him on the track. Developing strong lower back and core muscles also helps to keep his spine functioning as pain-free as possible.
So back to the question: What makes Usain Bolt so fast?
The official Usain Bolt website proclaims him as the “the most naturally gifted athlete the world has ever seen”. That is debateable. He is certainly the most dominant sprinter the world has ever seen and indeed it all started with an abundance of God-given talent enhanced by a Jamaican track and field culture that has no comparison. I am sure the bright sun, fresh air and potent Jamaican ground provisions don’t hurt either.
Some musculoskeletal abnormalities may offer unique advantages in specific situations but scoliosis is not one of them. Usain St. Leo Bolt’s achievement of athletic excellence while living with scoliosis is a testament of his ability to overcome obstacles and is a source of hope and inspiration for others living with this condition.
As we all continue to ponder how he does it, I will make my way to the nearest West Indian grocer and see if I can find some authentic Bolt yams.
Dr. Christopher J. Morgan is the director of Morgan Chiropractic & Wellness, an interdisciplinary health centre in Toronto, and the President of the Black Health Alliance, a network of community organizations, health professionals and community members working in partnership to advance the health and well-being of the Black community. He can be reached at 416-447-7600 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Dr. CHRISTOPHER J. MORGAN