The pre-race consensus was that Justin Gatlin, the owner of the world-leading time, would win. But as we all know, Usain Bolt upset that consensus and took the gold medal. Here’s my analysis of the race, proceeding from the heats through the semis and concluding with the final.
A few quick points from the heats:
- A sub-10 second performance won all but one heat (that one had a stiff headwind of -1.4m/s)
- 8 athletes ran under 10 seconds
- The slowest automatic qualifier was 10.24 (-1.4m/s)
- The slowest fastest loser was 10.12 (two athletes)
- The fastest non-qualifier was 10.13 (two athletes)
Based on heat results, it’s fair to say that the 100m has moved on pretty spectacularly over the last few years. While it can be hard to compare like-for-like to older editions of these championships due to the reduction from four rounds to three for the better athletes, I’ll do my best to make it as fair as possible. To that end, I’ll class the heats of all World Championships from 2011 onwards as the quarter-finals of previous editions.
First, it’s good that I’ve retired from this event, as I would no longer be competitive on the world stage. I made the semi-finals in the 2007 World Championships by winning my quarter-final in 10.21 seconds; in all but one heat at the 2015 edition that time would have eliminated me. Christophe Lemaitre, the slowest qualifier with 10.24, recorded that time into a pretty strong headwind. These marks reflect the increase in strength in this event.
Comparing the 2015 edition to 2005 also reflects this increase in quality. A decade earlier, 10.41 was the slowest automatic qualifier, and 10.32 was the slowest fastest-loser. The fastest non-qualifier ran 10.34. In 1995, 10.29 was the slowest automatic qualifier for the semi-finals. Two other athletes also ran that time and didn’t qualify.
This edition of the Championships shows how high the standard has become. In fact, the standard is even higher than it might initially appear. There are now three semi-finals, as opposed to two. As a result, more athletes can qualify, which you might think would lead to a reduction in standards. Yet compared to other three semi-final championships, this edition still looks strong. In 2013, the slowest automatic qualifier for the semi-finals was 10.30, the slowest fastest loser was 10.20, and the fastest non-qualifier was 10.21. In 2011, strong headwinds distort the comparison, but 10.42 was both the slowest qualifier and fastest non-qualifier.
Overall, we learned that if you want to qualify for the semi-finals, it’s probably a good idea to run very close to your best in the first round. Gone are the days of the supreme ease-down. Nowadays you have to go pretty hard. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Britain’s James Dasaolu. He looked to be in very good shape until 70m when he looked to his right and eased down. He finished out of the qualification positions with 10.13. This situation is very similar to his 2013 World Championships heat performance, where he was only the slowest fastest loser, qualifying with 10.20 (he ended up making the final in 2013). Similarly, Kim Collins didn’t make it through the heats, despite having run 9.98 earlier this year. Key point: You need to prepare both physically and mentally to run hard in your heat.
A brief overview of the semi-finals:
- The fastest qualifying time was 9.77
- The winning times in the other two semi-finals were above 9.9
- The slowest automatic qualifier was 9.97
- The slowest fastest loser was 9.99
- The fastest time not to make the final was 10.00
- 9 people ran under 10 seconds
The semi-finals were somewhat of an anti-climax. Following the performances in the heats, many people predicted a sub-9.9 clocking would be required to make the final. But only two athletes broke the 9.9 mark, and everyone under 10 seconds qualified for the final. A quick note: having 9 lanes available for the final meant that all three athletes who ran 9.99 qualified as fastest losers. If only 8 lanes were available, one person would have run under 10 seconds and not qualified for the final at a major championship—it would have been the first time sub-10.00 failed to make the final. Another point is that pre-2011, there were only two semi-finals, most commonly with the first 4 qualifying (i.e. no fastest losers). From 2011 onwards there has been a transition to three semi-finals, with two fastest loser spots available.
Compared to previous championships, the standard was marginally higher at the semi-final stage. In 2013, 10.00 made the final (0.01 slower than here). Headwinds again skew 2011 (10.16 made the final), and in 2009 10.04 qualified for the final (0.05 slower than here), but 10.04 also missed out on the final.
The 2005 edition of these Championships required 10.13 to qualify automatically for the final, although 10.08 missed out in the second (faster) semi-final. In 1995, 10.17 made the final, while 10.20 missed out.
What might all this information tell us? First, only one more athlete broke 10 seconds in the semi-finals compared to the heats. This could indicate that athletes on the threshold of qualifying for the final took the heats and semi-finals very seriously and ran more or less flat out in both. It could also be that, historically, athletes have had a reasonably easy first round to ease them into the competition. Now, they are starting at the second-round stage, and, therefore, don’t have time to ease themselves into competition. As such perhaps they are a bit more nervous and/or excited, and running faster than they would have liked in the heats. This strong effort could carry over to day two and show a reduction in semi-final performance—or at least not the same improvement you might otherwise expect from heats to the semi-final.
Second, it appears that allowing for fastest losers results in the better athletes tending to make the final—which is certainly more fair. In a two semi-final championship with only the first four qualifying for the final, one semi-final is always quicker than the other. As a result, someone doesn’t qualify for the final who would have had they competed in the slower semi-final. Jason Gardener provides a good example. In 2005, his 10.08 placed him only fifth in his semi-final but would have won the other one.
Finally, to qualify for the 100m final at the World Championships, you need to run <10.1 on day one, and <10.00 on day two. To be competitive, you likely need to run <10.00 on day one, and 9.95ish at the semi-final stage.
A quick look at the numbers from the final:
- Medaling required 9.92
- 9.94 was the fastest non-medal winning performance
- Five athletes ran sub-10.00
- A top-six finish required 10.00
- The time spread was 0.27 (0.21 for the top 8)
The final was a wonderful example of how pressure and fatigue can interact to reduce performance. On five occasions this year Gatlin ran faster than the winning performance here. Bolt, on the other hand, ran a season-best in the final to win, a demonstration of the importance of holding it together when it matters the most.
Interestingly, this was the stage with the fewest number of athletes breaking 10 seconds; only five, compared to eight in the heats and nine in the semi-finals. Fatigue could have played a role. It is hard to run three races at greater than 99.9% of maximum performance. Pressure was certainly a factor. The slight headwinds may have also played a role. Or a mix of all three.
The winning time was slightly slower than the 2013 edition (which took place in what looked like a monsoon in Moscow) and significantly slower than the 2012 and 2008 Olympics and 2009 World Championships. This falloff is partly a function of Bolt not currently being the athlete he was during that 4-year period.
The 9.92 required for a medal was, again, slower than those previous championships. If Bromell or de Grasse had been 0.001 slower and therefore 4th, again the relative standard would have been a bit weaker. Medaling in 2008 required 9.91 (9.93 missed out), and 9.84 the following year (9.93 missed out). In 2012, 9.79 was required for a medal, and 9.80 missed out. The trends for sixth place to be at (or very close to) 10.00 held true at these Championships, with three athletes running 10.00 for 6th, 7th, and 8th. This result is similar in quality to the 2008 and 2012 Olympics (I’m ignoring Asafa Powell’s 11.99 clocking at the latter) and the 2009 Worlds (again ignoring the 10.34 last place). Looking longer term, the 2005 World Champions required 10.05 for a medal (10.07 missed out), and the 1995 edition required 10.03 for a medal (10.07 missed out).
What are the main things to learn here? First, it is imperative to ensure that athletes are used to being under pressure and develop the mental skills to tolerate this pressure. Second, fatigue management is incredibly important, perhaps more so today than ever before. A top-6 contender needs to run at or under 10 seconds in three consecutive races over a two-day period. To win a medal you likely need to be capable of sub-10 in the heats, 9.95-ish in the semis, and as close to 9.9 as you can in the final.
If you’re coaching an athlete looking to make a major championship final, you probably don’t need my help or opinions. Hypothetically, if I were working with an athlete with a ton of talent, I would:
- Develop the speed endurance/durability required to put together three maximum-effort races over the two days
- Ensure the athlete is fully focused and mentally prepared for the heats, as a few big names came unstuck here
- Make sure my athlete is used to running under pressure, by seeking the most competitive race opportunities throughout the season (unless I was coaching Usain Bolt, who appears to be a born champion) and using pressure-based training in some of my sessions
- Have a really good recovery plan for the periods between all the races to ensure my athlete could bring 100% performance each time
- Keep my fingers crossed that higher-ranked runners under-perform
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