Picture the scene: Usain Bolt, with 25 major international medals to his name, four world records, and defending World and Olympic champion in three disciplines, settling into the blocks before an expectant crowd. A man who has rewritten history, revitalised a sport haunted by doping scandals, and inspired a generation to lace up their spikes in the hope of emulating him.
But, wait - his blocks aren’t at the start of the home straight, nor are they upon the top bend: the Jamaican is poised at the start of a 400 metre race, a discipline he undertook as a junior, but now rarely runs. To his side, another great of the sport - one who rarely uses starting blocks these days - readies himself: 800 metre World and Olympic Champion, David Rudisha, the only man to have dipped below 1:41 over the two-lap distance.
Both the Kenyan and Bolt were quarter mile competitors as juniors, before one halved the distance, and the other doubled it, going on to make history in their respective fields. It’s here - the super race - the clash of the titans.
As an event, it would attract a huge global audience, capable of bearing great commercial or charitable fruit, and- as a concept - fascinating.
Both athletes occasionally sharpen themselves up with a 400m early in the season - Rudisha ran 45.82 in February before taking his first Olympic title in London, and Bolt produced a more sedate 46.44 clocking in March 2013. Just as Mo Farah likes to use 1500m and 3000m races to work on his speed, Rudisha gets in some early one-lap outings to assess his form and pace. For Bolt, it serves the opposite purpose - a test of his endurance ahead of major 200m contests.
What’s undeniable is that the race would be of an extremely high calibre. Bolt is the second fastest man of all time over 300m, his 2010 time of 30.97 just over a tenth of a second behind Michael Johnson’s all-time record , whilst Rudisha managed a 1:13.10 over 600m in Birmingham back in June, with Johnny Gray of the USA the only athlete ever to have gone quicker. He has great pedigree in the race - his father, Daniel Rudisha, has a silver medal from the 1960 Olympic Games, won in the 4x400m.
Their personal bests are impressive: Bolt’s is 45.28 - ran back in 2007 at the Jamaican Invitational, whilst Rudisha’s is 45.50 from the 2010 Sydney Track Classic, although the Kenyan stormed home in an unofficial 45.15 in Nairobi in 2013. In 2003 Bolt broke the World Youth record by almost a second with 45.35, a marker which stood for 12 years. To put those in perspectives, only 22 athletes have gone below 45 seconds this year, each of whom train specifically for the event.
Unfortunately, whilst Rudisha is keen for the contest to take place, Bolt’s camp haven’t committed to anything, and we may never see the pair go head-to-head, over the perfect neutral
distance of 400m
This doesn’t stop us imagining it. If Bolt were to train for the 400m, shelve his dislike for intense, lactic-inducing sessions, and humour Coach Mills by committing to the quarter-mile for the first time, the race would be his. Even Michael Johnson has admitted that his record could fall to the Jamaican, whose long limbs are perfectly suited to the distance.
If he didn’t, Rudisha’s staying power would be the order of the day, and - as Seb Coe has remarked - anyone who can run a 49-second split en route to a sub-1:41 800 metres is capable of a pretty impressive 400m any day of the week.
In that light, if the pair were to race this season, here’s how the commentary would most likely sound:
‘And Usain Bolt gets out fast, that sprinting prowess showing as he powers away from the Kenyan, opening up a lead right from the gun. Rudisha working hard here, but he’s just not got the pace of Bolt, who’s five metres ahead now. The crowd are roaring the 800 metre specialist on but it’s not enough at this stage - Bolt’s ten metres ahead at the halfway mark, and, my, that’s a quick opening 200 from the Jamaican. Rudisha looking a little uncomfortable at this pace, but still nicely relaxed.
We’re at 150 to go, and it’s as though the air in Bolt’s lane is slowly thickening - he’s got more weight to carry over this distance, remember, and the Kenya's lithe build is coming into its own. A bit of a grimace now from the king of sprinting as he comes around the bend, and Rudisha is eating into his lead, slowly but surely. This is like watching Christine Ohuruogu race: will the powerful finisher reel in the confident starter? Or have they left themselves too much to do? I’m getting horrible flashbacks to the 2012 women's final.
The lucky, lucky people in the crowd have created a wall of sound, urging the athletes on as they draw neck and neck. Bolt looking very fatigued by this point - he’s in real pain here, and struggling to hold his form. This is new to him - no one ever actually gets closer to him as the finishing line approaches… He’s looking to his side, eyes bulging, arms working, as the Kenyan drives hard too, and gets it on the line with the dip he rarely has to produce in 800s.
Rudisha gets it: Bolt is beaten as stamina wins the day. It’s a stunning time - would you look at that! - what a historic event this crowd have enjoyed today.’
Bolt handles the loss magnanimously, in great humour, and the pair hobble around their lap of honour, trying to establish a trademark victory pose for Rudisha.