Short people got no reason to live

It isn't enough that tall men get all the girls and win all the elections. After Usain Bolt's ridiculous world-record sprint, now we can't even run away from them anymore.

Published August 18, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

As someone who stands at exactly the average male American height of 5 feet 9 and 1/2, I can attest that there's nothing particularly glorious about being medium sized. You can't look over people's shoulders at parades, you have a serious disadvantage playing the low post in basketball, and you have an added reason to be nervous about asking Diana Rigg out. But being Joe Median has always had one advantage: if you're fast, you're likely to be able to smoke the big dudes. OK, men who are 6 feet and taller do better in business, get more girls and win more elections. But when you line up with these entitled, soon-to-be-CEO beanpoles on the track or the football field, their bogus genetic advantage disappears. How sweet it is to watch these oversize, totally undeserving future Captains of Industry eating your dinky-ass dust.

The 60-yard Procrustean Cut-Down was the sole event we Middle Men could hope to win. But after Usain Bolt's world-record run in the 100 meters on Saturday night, our last undersize crutch has disappeared forever. There is now no reason for anyone inhabiting the center of the bell curve to live. A hideous future is upon us, in which a race of enormous, gloating men, now the totally dominant species on Planet Earth, police the rest of us like angry dinosaurs, exacting a terrible revenge upon anyone who ever challenged their vertical hegemony.

Bolt's race was one of the freakiest events in the history not just of the Olympics but of track and field. The 6'5" Jamaican simply redefined speed. Not only did he destroy one of the fastest fields in Olympic history and shatter his own world record, he did it with a gut stuffed full of Chicken McNuggets, with one shoe untied and while signing autographs, blowing kisses and taking a nap during the last 20 meters of the race. As the great retired Trinidadian sprinter Ato Boldon, winner of four Olympic medals, said during NBC's broadcast, "This has never been seen before in Olympic history."

Anyone who's an NFL fan knows that there are plenty of fast tall guys out there. Most wide receivers are at least 6 feet tall -- although it's noteworthy how many cornerbacks, who are often the fastest players on the field, are only 5'9" or 5'10". The same thing holds for sprinters in track. Carl Lewis, arguably the greatest track athlete of all time, was 6'2", the same height as Richard Thompson of Trinidad and Tobago, who took the silver medal behind Bolt. And the man who has run the third-fastest 100 meters ever, Olympic flop Asafa Powell of Jamaica, is 6'3". But many of the greatest sprinters are average size. Maurice Greene, whose world record of 9.79 stood for almost six years, was 5'9". So is Walter Dix, who took the bronze behind Bolt and Thompson, and Boldon, who won silver in the 100 at Sydney. Tyson Gay, the American record holder who was unable to qualify for the final after a hamstring injury, is 5'11", as was disgraced Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson. Track legend Jesse Owens was 5'10."

So tall sprinters are not unusual. But 6'5"? That's basketball height, high-jumper height. That's a whole different thing. Runners that tall simply can't start fast enough, get into their stride pattern soon enough to challenge shorter, quicker runners, who get into their top gear faster. There's a reason no human as tall as Bolt as ever been anywhere near the podium in a world championship sprint. But in an electrifying 9.69 seconds, that all changed forever.

If Bolt was going to lose, it was going to be at the start. And sure enough, he had the seventh-slowest reaction time out of the blocks, 0.165 seconds compared with 0.133 for Thompson and Dix. And he trailed both men for the first 30 or 40 meters. But even when he was behind, you could see what was coming -- his stride was too long and powerful. And once he got it going, he flew past the leaders as if they were running in sand. It was no contest. He simply looked like a new, improved version of humanity.

And this new, larger, faster species turns out to be delightfully cavalier. For with 20 meters to go, a fifth of the race, Bolt looked from side to side, realized he was going to win and simply shut it down. He threw out his arms, then pounded his chest while cruising across the finish line on mere momentum. He wasn't even trying. Track aficionados and records junkies busted their heads and calculators trying to guess what insane figure Bolt could have put up if he had run the whole race -- 9.62? 9.59? An unthinkable 9.55, in a sport where no other runner except Bolt had ever gone below 9.74?

In one sense, Bolt's breezy shutdown at the end of the race was maddening. Was he so sure that he would get another chance? He was only 21, but unexpected things happen. How could he simply squander an opportunity to set a mark that might not be touched for years or even decades?

But in another sense, Bolt's casual attitude was satisfying. After the race, he said he didn't care about the world record, only about winning. There's something at once ferociously competitive and almost Buddhistic about this attitude. Instead of obsessively worrying about the clock, Bolt just wanted to run fast. His cruise at the end bespoke a kind of royal largess, like a mighty king who from his plenty throws handfuls of gold coins to his people.

And that la-di-da attitude, from a guy who started running the 100 only a year ago, is just as inspiring in its own way as the more customary Olympic tales of pain and sacrifice. I'm not saying that Bolt hasn't worked and trained hard. But as he strolled across the line having moved faster than any homo sapiens in history, powered by two meals of deep-fried chicken pellets and with his shoe untied, his victory exemplified pure, unbelievable talent -- and talent is a wonderful thing to behold. Even if it does confirm the arrival of a new race of implacable über-giraffes who will govern the rest of us from on high.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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