By David Epstein
August 21, 2008

BEIJING -- The Beijing Olympics will be remembered for the displays of unprecedented dominance put on in the pool by Michael Phelps, and on the track by Usain Bolt. Both men have afforded spectators the rare opportunity to watch the kind of performances that seem to transcend the conventional bounds of sports, and become almost performance art.

On Thursday night in the Bird's Nest, Cuba's Dayron Robles, 21, will provide one more chance to see a true and youthful virtuoso operating with unprecedented mastery.

The anticipation of seeing China's Liu Xiang try to defend his Olympic title made the high hurdles final the toughest ticket to come by in Beijing. But after Liu walked off the track with an Achilles tendon injury, and America's Terrence Trammell, the model of hurdling consistency, could not finish his preliminary race because of a hamstring strain, the spotlight on the 110-meter hurdles, never a marquee event for the general Olympics viewer, got a whole lot dimmer.

But the hurdles final is still must-see TV. It's a chance to see perhaps the best hurdler in history make an assault on his own world record, 12.87, which he set in June, besting Liu's 2006 mark by .01.

To understand what allows Robles to vanquish his rivals, all the while looking relaxed enough to be sipping a cappuccino, it helps to understand a basic difference between hurdling and sprinting. That's right, hurdling is not simply jumping and sprinting between barriers, otherwise the fastest sprinter would win the 110-meter high hurdles, and an athlete like Liu, whose flat 100-meter personal best is a mere 10.4, would never stand a chance. (For contrast, Trammell's 100-meter personal best is 10.04, but his best in the hurdles is 12.95.)

Hurdlers don't sprint, they shuffle. Take a look at Robles' lower half when he runs Thursday, and compare it to a replay of, say, American sprinter Walter Dix, who won bronze in the 100 and 200. Dix's feet pump into the track like pistons, his knees flashing up to waist level. What Robles and other hurdles do is almost race-walking in comparison. Robles' feet appear to get only inches off the ground in the three steps between hurdles, they glide just above the track surface, and his knees hardly lift at all. His hands, unlike with Dix and most other sprinters whose hands go from cheekbone to back pocket, will not cut past his chin, or farther back than his front pocket. If hurdlers ran with the exaggerated strides of sprinters, they would simply crash right through the barriers. For a man of Robles's height, nearly 6-foot-4, having the shuffle down is particularly important.

While Robles keeps his stride compact between hurdles, going over the hurdles, he uses his stature to full advantage, perhaps better than any other tall hurdler in history. Steve McGill, a high school and USATF hurdles coach in North Carolina, and proprietor of the Web site, has a jeweler's eye for quality when it comes to hurdling. He observes that Robles stays firmly upright when he hurdles, and rather than throwing his lead leg straight out over the hurdle, he actually comes down over the barrier, with his leg already heading for the track on the other side. So "there is no need to snap down [after the hurdle] if the lead leg is already on the way down," McGill wrote in an e-mail.

And because Robles does not thrust his lead leg perfectly parallel to the ground as he passes over the hurdle, he does not need a long runway for his takeoff, and thus does not have to worry about getting crowded by coming in too close to the hurdle. Occasionally, if a hurdler gets too crowded to throw their leg over the barrier, they will either smash the hurdle, or stutter-step before they get there, which is disastrous in terms of race speed. Because Robles can takeoff extraordinarily close to the hurdle, and come down very shortly past it, he can spend a lot more space running, and a lot less space floating.

McGill noticed that, in 2008, Robles has also corrected a problem with his trail leg. Robles trail leg used to kick backward a bit as it left the ground (you can see it here in 2006), which caused the leg to swing a little wide, making the motion less compact and efficient. (If you ever watch a high hurdles race, and get the feeling that a runner appears to be running slightly sideways down the track, it's because hurdlers who do not snap their trail leg over the hurdle quickly enough to keep up with their lead leg will land with their hips twisted, and will have to straighten out slightly as they continue. With Robles' trail leg now in line, he appears to land perfectly square, and ready to rock and roll. (Take a look at Robles setting the world record. The replays start at about 0:55).

Lastly, Robles manages to take seven steps to the first hurdle, compared to eight for just about everyone else, so he often has a lead by the very first barrier.

Taken together, Robles has the package to do something that has never been done before. After the 200-meter final Wednesday night, Kim Collins of St. Kitts and Nevis, who took sixth in the race, said that Bolt is beatable, "but not when he runs how he did tonight. To catch him, we'll have to catch him on a bad day."

He might as well have been talking about Robles.

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