De Grasse's plan was to beat Bolt by making him run faster. It almost worked. Here's why
ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Before Andre De Grasse faced Usain Bolt in the 200-metre gold-medal showdown at the Olympics, the Canadian sprinter and his coach devised a plan to defeat the world's fastest man. De Grasse's coach Stuart McMillan decided that rather than go easy on Bolt, they were going to attack.
De Grasse and Bolt were set to face off in the same semi-final, and instead of conserving energy for the more important final, the plan was to challenge Bolt and make him run faster. The goal was to tire out the Jamaican legend, hoping that on one day's rest, after being pushed, Bolt would not be able to perform as well as normal when the medal was on the line.
It was a bold plan, particularly from De Grasse, an Olympic rookie. "We had a strategy to try and tire out Usain," said McMillan. "I think [Bolt] is used to athletes rolling over for him a little bit."
But the results didn't follow. When the two sprinters crossed the finish line in Thursday night's final, Bolt won his third straight Olympic gold medal in the 200-metres, while De Grasse took silver, the first medal in that event for a Canadian since Percy Williams in 1928.
Here is a closer look at the strategy to take down Bolt, and why it fell short.
Heading into the final, McMillan was keenly aware that most of the sprinters in that event would be running their sixth race in six days.
The 100-metre heats, semi-final and final were intense, and as the qualifying races for the 200-metre event began, some sprinters were slowing down. For his part, Bolt looked like he was taking it easy, coasting through his heat in a relatively pedestrian time of 20.28.
Bolt had ruled the sprinting world for eight years, and McMillan felt he was finally showing signs of age.
On the night of the 200-metre final, Bolt would be just three days away from his 30th birthday. Recovering from a hard race on back-to-back days was not as easy as it was in his early 20s.
Meanwhile, De Grasse was only 21. He could probably handle a bigger workload, running all-out on Wednesday, then coming back and racing the final on Thursday.
"Usain Bolt in his prime is untouchable," McMillan said. "But Usain Bolt in 2016 is touchable. And I think there was an opportunity [in Rio] for Usain to lose."
How it almost worked
Sprinters are finely tuned machines. Their muscles are explosive and must fire on command. Fatigue can slow that reaction time down, which means the difference between a gold medal, and not making the podium.
At 29, Bolt is the first to admit he's not the runner he once was. His world record in the 200-metres, of 19.19 seconds, was set seven years ago. Now he's about six-tenths of a second slower on a good day. "I'm not 26 any more. I'm not 21 any more. So it's not going to be as easy as it used to be," Bolt said.
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He expected Wednesday's semi-final would be go like any other preliminary – run fast, but don't burn yourself out for the finals.
But as he sprinted towards the finish line, Bolt felt something odd. De Grasse was coming up alongside him, pushing Bolt to go faster. He sped up. So did De Grasse. They kept going, accelerating toward the finish line. It was, for a semi-final, unusually entertaining.
Bolt seemed amused by the whole thing, too. When the two men crossed the line, cameras caught them grinning at each other, then Bolt wagged his finger at De Grasse.
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No words were spoken in that moment but it was one man saying, "I know what you're doing," and the other man replying, "Yes you do. I'm trying to beat you."
Bolt wasn't pleased. "He was just saying it was just unnecessary," De Grasse said later.
De Grasse pulled off a personal best time of 19.80 seconds in that race, while Bolt ran a 19.78, making his the fastest time of the semi-finals. By comparison, Bolt's time in the 200-metre heats earlier in the week wasn't even in the top three.
It seemed like De Grasse's strategy might have the desired effect.
When Bolt lined up for the 200-metre final on Thursday, he admitted, "My legs just didn't feel fresh."
Why it backfired
Six races in six days is a lot for anyone. And what De Grasse underestimated was the toll that all-out semi-final would take on him.
Even though De Grasse is eight years younger than Bolt, this is his first Olympics. The first thing any athlete will tell you about competing at an Olympics is how different the competitions feel compared to usual meets, or even the world championships. The crowds are bigger, the media attention more intense, and the stakes are higher. Fatigue is a risk, no matter what the sport, or who the athlete is.
When De Grasse came around the corner in the 200-metre final and kicked his race into high gear, he was chasing Bolt. But De Grasse, whose strength is his strong finishes, couldn't muster the explosiveness to keep pace.
It was his legs that felt tired. "I felt like I had a great shot. I'm not sure if I just used up a little bit too much energy [in the semi-final] and didn't have anything left," De Grasse said. "My legs were probably a little bit fatigued, so that's why I couldn't get out there and run that last 50 metres [as quickly]."
When the race was over, Bolt won gold in 19.78, while De Grasse settled for silver with a time of 20.02. Compared to the semi-final, Bolt's time stayed exactly the same. It was De Grasse who got slower.
"It's a learning experience," De Grasse said. "I'll know better for next time."
McMillan believes they missed their chance to defeat one of sprinting's greatest legends. He doesn't regret attempting the strategy. "I'm not sure, but there was an opportunity here that was lost," McMillan said.
For his part, Bolt deemed the race a success. "I'm getting older, you know what I mean, so I don't recover like I usually do. But the key thing is I won, and that's what I came here for," he said.
When asked about De Grasse's plan to tire him out, Bolt responded, "He tired out himself."
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How Bolt saw it
The sprinter holds no grudges against De Grasse for deploying a bit of gamesmanship.
"Listen, it's all great," Bolt said after the 200-metre final as he sat next to De Grasse in the press conference after the race.
"I love competition, he's a young kid, he has great talent," Bolt said. "I look up to the fact that he definitely wants to beat me. I can tell. He might joke about it, but I can tell. And as a competitor you should always want to be the best, without a doubt. So I respect him for that."
Bolt is famously easygoing (seconds before the 200-metre gun went off, he danced a salsa for the Brazilian crowd when he was introduced on the big screen). But there is a point where he draws a competitive line in the sand.
"I tell every youngster – you're not going to beat me. I don't allow young kids to beat me… You're never going to get that chance," he said. "But I know [De Grasse] is going to be a great athlete if he continues on the road that he's on right now."
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De Grasse's take
Asked how he will feel when Bolt eventually retires, De Grasse replied, "Real happy."
He was joking, but there was a hint of truth to the words. For De Grasse, and every other sprinter to come along in the past decade, Bolt has been an immovable object in their way.
That was precisely what De Grasse came up against in the 200-metres.
"Contending for a silver medal in the 200 was great," De Grasse said. "Usain did his thing. I thought I could have done a better job of contending with him, but I came up short."
Perhaps it was foolish for De Grasse to think he could tire out the man who has rewritten the sprinting record books several times over. Bolt, he said, is not like other sprinters.
"I don't know how he does it," De Grasse said. "He's just a different type of guy."
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