Christophe Lemaitre: he runs fast for a white man
Gavin Mortimer: Why this French sprinter can only go so far - and why it’s not racist to face the facts
Two weeks ago I sat in the Stade de France in Paris watching Usain Bolt win the 100m in a time of 9.84 seconds. By the Jamaican's standards, it was an average time, way down on the world record 9.58 seconds he set last year when he won the World Championship title in Berlin.
Lining up alongside Bolt in Paris was a mere stripling of a sprinter, a tall, gangly wide-eyed French lad called Christophe Lemaitre. It looked like man against boy, and so it proved as Lemaitre trailed home in fifth place, five yards behind Bolt and America’s Asafa Powell, who came in second.
Yet just a week before that race in Paris, Lemaitre had created a little piece of history by becoming the first white man to run 100m in under 10 seconds. In winning the French Championships in 9.98 seconds, the 20-year-old from Annecy demonstrated he has potential. But potential to do what exactly? Run fast for a white man - or run fast to challenge the likes of Bolt, Powell and Tyson Gay in the London Olympics in 2012?
First the question of his colour. In the aftermath of his landmark achievement, Le Monde said the Frenchman’s victory had "launched an old and controversial debate that can be summarised by the question: Do black people run faster than white people and if so, why?"
That debate is only controversial because the politically correct choose to make it so; what is racist in acknowledging that, in general, black athletes run faster than white athletes - in the same way white swimmers, in general, swim faster than black swimmers? It is a proven fact.
As the first man to run 100 metres in under 10 seconds was a black sprinter, the USA's Jim Hines, in the 1968 Olympics. The last white sprinter to win an Olympic 100m title was Allan Wells of Britain in 1980, and one might say that was only because the USA boycotted the Moscow Olympics. If that doesn’t prove that black athletes run faster than their white counterparts then what does?
Yet there are still some people unwilling to accept this basic biological fact, among them Zoran Denoix, one of France’s national coaches.
"If one day the Chinese decide to make a guy run the 100m in less than 10 seconds, they will do it," said Denoix. "It is clear there is no genetic or other thing. It's just the kind of work you put in." A more absurd statement one would be hard pressed to find, as if we all are capable of emulating Usain Bolt in needing just 41 strides to cover 100m in 9.58 seconds.
Lemaitre’s own attitude to the debate is to avoid it, declaring in the wake of his 9.98 seconds in the French Championships: "This story is too much, I don't like it. I had a good race, I broke the record, but there is not much more to say. I did what I had to do, that's it."
The more pertinent issue surrounding Lemaitre is just how much faster can he run? In winning last night’s 100m European Championships title in Barcelona, Lemaitre clocked 10.11 seconds, a comparatively slow time by world standards. (In the final of the 100 metres in Beijing the sprinter who trailed in last did so in a time of 10.03 seconds.)
So is Lemaitre destined to remain just a decent European sprinter or can he shave another few tenths of a second off his personal best to challenge for a medal in the 2012 Olympics? At 20, he’s still young (though Usain Bolt was only 21 when he ran 9.72s in 2007) and he’s also still physically immature in comparison to other world-class sprinters.
But according to former British sprinter Darren Campbell, who won the 100m European Championship title in 1998, what Lemaitre needs to work on first is his technique. "You're born with speed, but you're not born a perfect sprinter," Campbell said in his capacity as a BBC Radio 5 reporter.
He then pinpointed several areas in which Lemaitre can improve, including his drive out of the starting blocks, and his body position as he hits full stride. "His running style at full speed is another area where he will improve,” says Campbell. “He doesn't rock and roll through his body, but because his foot placements aren't that consistent, he veers. In the first round he went out to the right hand side of the lane. If you stay straight, you'll go quicker."
But how much quicker for Lemaitre? "I think he's capable of low 9.9s,” says Campbell. "If he can eradicate these small things, why shouldn't he?" In other words, Lemaitre will never be a sprinting great, and the back of Bolt’s running vest is all he’s likely to see in the 2012 Olympic final. ·
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