Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Achievement and Potential

by Conroy

Usain Bolt - the fastest man in the world?
On Sunday evening at London’s Olympic Stadium Usain Bolt electrified the packed stands as he surged ahead of the world’s best sprinters to win the 100 meter dash in Olympic record time1. He flashed over those 100 meters in little more than 9.6 seconds, an average speed of more than 23 miles per hour. For this feat Bolt gets to keep his unofficial moniker as the “fastest man in the world”, a title he first earned at the Beijing Olympics four years ago. And it’s a pretty cool title – the fastest man in the world – maybe the most elemental distinction an athlete can have. But is it true, is Usain Bolt really the fastest man in the world?

I use a timely and prominent Olympics example to illustrate a theme that has always interested me, the connection between achievement and potential. This connection carries beyond sport to all aspects of human endeavor, but let me go back to Bolt to better demonstrate what I mean.

Consider two questions:
  • Is there someone in the world who could go out to the track today and beat Bolt? 
  • Or, is there someone who, given the proper time and training and preparation, could run faster than Bolt?

The first question is easier to address, and the likely answer is no. I suppose it’s possible that on some sun-swept Caribbean island or some American college track a man is consistently running 100 meter times at world record pace, but I highly doubt it. Anyone who is actually running world-class fast would be noticed (talent attracts attention) and then be funneled into a running program, onto a team, and find their way into competition. And to run that fast you really can’t toil on your own. Training and coaching are certainly needed to perform near the limits of human ability. No one today can challenge Bolt except for the men he raced against in these Olympics and none of them has ever run as fast as he did Sunday night2.

The second question is far stickier though, and it gets more to the core of my thinking. No one has ever run faster than Usain Bolt, but does that mean that no one could? There are over seven billion people in the world, is even just one of them capable of beating Bolt? Do they have the physical make-up, the raw talent, the potential to be better? Perhaps these men (or women) have found their way into another sport like soccer or football3, or maybe they live in places or under circumstances that haven’t allowed them to develop their innate physical abilities, or maybe they’ve been unlucky and gotten sick or injured or even died without being able to explore their full potential. When you consider the question in this context doesn’t it seem reasonable or even likely to think that there’s someone out there in the wide world other than Bolt who could be the true fastest man in the world? And think about this, there were three men from Jamaica in the 100 meter final. That country has long been a hotbed for sprinters, but are all the world’s fastest men really found on this tiny impoverished island nation of less than three million people?4

So hopefully you see where I’m coming from. We view the results of the 100 meter dash, note the record times and correctly say that Bolt is the fastest man who’s ever tried to be the fastest man. He’s the embodiment of a very basic and universal expression of athletic achievement (all of us with two working legs have tried to run as fast as we could run on at least a few occasions). But who’s to say he’s the full realization of human potential? And that leads to a broader discussion.

What Is and What Never Was
Step away from sports and think of greater achievers, like the revered scientists or artists throughout history; Newton or Shakespeare are two of the more prominent examples. Newton may be the greatest scientist of all time. Among other things he described the principal of gravitation and his three laws of motion, invented calculus and other mathematical forms, and wrote one of the canonical works of western scientific thought with the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica5. He was by any measure a mind of the first rank and his accumulated work has strongly influenced scientific thought and the advancement of science for the last three hundred years. The world is a better place because of Newton’s intellectual contributions.

Shakespeare is widely regarded as the world’s greatest dramatist and his work is still celebrated and performed by all cultures and in all major languages. Shakespeare is widely credited with expanding and enriching the English language and his myriad neologisms pepper our everyday speech6.  If you believe as I do that only the artist can really express what it is to be human, then few can hold a higher place in our understanding of mankind. And indeed, perhaps no artists is held in higher esteem or has been more influential in world literature than Shakespeare.

But in the light of these accomplishments I’ll offer a counter-factual: what if Newton of Shakespeare never lived? Or what if they never devoted themselves to their genius? What if Newton had focused on alchemy and Shakespeare had never left his wife and young children in Stratford?

I think in many ways we live in a world with the belief that talent will rise to the top, that genius will be expressed, that the greatest minds will find their outlet and reach their full potential. That a Newton or Einstein will always find the truth in the universe, that a Shakespeare or Joyce will always capture the essence of the world with their words, that a Beethoven will pull glorious harmony out of the vibrating air, or that a Usain Bolt will find his way to the track. But while I’d like to believe that, I just can’t see the world as that simple. There just isn’t such inevitability to human life. Shakespeare lived in an era where the plague ravaged London. What if he had contracted the disease and died long before he completed his greatest plays?7 What if Beethoven had decided to stop creating music when he started losing his hearing? Or what if, say, a teenage Roger Federer had decided to concentrate on soccer instead of tennis?

Did Newton have any equals that history never knew?
Questioning what could have happened or what never was doesn’t really get you anywhere. But I come back to my central curiosity. Humans in the last 10,000 plus years of civilization have made tremendous advancements as a species (mindboggling really). Whether it’s minor accomplishments like a sporting landmark, major scientific breakthroughs that have given rise to life-improving technological change, or soul-enhancing artistic expression, our achievements are breathtaking. But what have we missed, what hasn’t happened? What Ulysses or Hamlet will we never get to read because the authors never got to express their thoughts? What life-advancing medical breakthroughs have we not been able to enjoy because a would-be doctor never found their way to medicine? (Maybe we’d already have the cure for the common cold.) What jaw-dropping athletic feat have I never witnessed because the player never took the field?

No one can say, but I’m certain that in a world full of human achievement there is profusion of unrealized potential. I can’t help but marvel at the strides we’ve taken and look forward excitedly to what tomorrow brings, but I also can’t help but wonder about at all the genius and great accomplishment that we’ll never know we’ve missed.  We call Usain Bolt the fastest man in the world, but I can’t help but wonder who out there might make even the mighty Bolt look second best.



1. Usain Bolt won his second 100 meter gold medal in an Olympic record time of 9.63 seconds. This bested his Beijing gold medal, and previous Olympic record, time of 9.69 seconds. His winning time was the second fastest in history to his own world record time of 9.58 seconds set in 2009 in Berlin. In total he owns the four fastest official 100 meter times in history.

2. In addition to Bolt, the 100 meter final included the next three fastest men in history, Tyson Gay of the U.S. and Johan Blake and Asafa Powell of Jamaica. Not to mention the American champion and 2004 Olympic gold medalist Justin Gatlin.

3. American football.

4. Jamaicans have owned the 100 meter record since 2005, when Asafa Powell ran 9.77 seconds. Powell subsequently lowered the record to 9.74 seconds before Bolt entered the stage.

5. He was also a theologian and alchemist, and interesting man whose preoccupations included rational and groundbreaking scientific thought, deep religious fervor, and a belief in the occult.

6. Such as: all’s well that ends well, bated breath, be-all and the end-all, break the ice, dead as a doornail, every dog will have its day, forever and a day, foregone conclusion, heart of gold, in my heart of hearts, in my mind’s eye, laughing stock, love is blind, neither rhyme nor reason, one fell swoop, own flesh and blood, what’s past is prologue, pomp and circumstance, salad days, sea change, sound and fury, this mortal coil, wear my heart upon my sleeve, and the world’s my oyster.

7.Or died in his youth like his own son Hamnet.

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