“He must be the stupidest son-of-a-@#$%@ alive. But he sure is fast!”
That’s an expletive-censored quote from a character in the 1994 Robert Zemeckis film Forrest Gump. The remark describes the two most striking characteristics of the movie’s titular character: Forrest Gump, played by Tom Hanks, can run “as fast as the wind blows” but his IQ is only 75.
Was Gump an unrealistic character? I don’t think so.
I think he would be unrealistic if he was a limited intellect guy that was also an outstanding quarterback or an outstanding point guard, sports positions that require intelligence in order to compete well at even the varsity level. But there’s not an inherent contradiction between being on the slow side mentally and moving fast physically. Furthermore, I think the tale of Forrest Gump is insightful in recapping the story of Usain Bolt at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Usain Bolt is the fastest man on the planet, but is he smart?
One characteristic of Bolt’s that isn’t debatable is that, with all his gold medals, he sure is arrogant. As he wins his races he likes to turn his attention away from the finish line, he likes to abandon proper running form, and he likes to smile back at his opponents. He can’t wait a couple of seconds later to smile after winning – he feels the need to do it during the race in a rude gesture and with a clear reference to the inadequacies of his opponents.
Forrest Gump’s mom always said, “Stupid is as stupid does.” That could be taken to mean that you’re only stupid if you do stupid things. I think Bolt qualifies.
But should he be forgiven for the way he acts on international television due to the fact that he’s only a teenager? While you might peg him for one based on his behavior, the truth is that Bolt acts the way he does at the age of 29. In my opinion, that’s supposed to be a couple of years after most males finally grow up.
Paul Theroux once wrote that “Everyone is aware of how few in number are the athletes who behave like gentlemen” and so Bolt certainly isn’t alone when it comes to being an arrogant athlete. However, he certainly is alone in just how arrogant he is, with reasons that relate strongly to his sport in my opinion.
Let’s take a look at some other arrogant contemporary athletes for points of comparison. Cam Newton, the Carolina Panther‘s QB, has an off-putting way of pointing toward his opponent’s goal line after he rushes for a first down. Jose Bautista isn’t generally arrogant in my opinion, however, he had a moment of indiscretion in the 2015 Major League Baseball playoffs when he flipped his bat against the Texas Rangers. About half of the Golden State Warriors are arrogant as any strong run of form in a game is accompanied by stretched-out “love-me” arms as they run down the court.
But at least Newton, Bautista, and the Golden State Warriors aren’t mere foot racers. It’s true that footspeed is a factor in all of their sports, but what’s also a major factor is intellect. I don’t mean to qualify arrogance when I say the following, but at least when judging the arrogance of Newton, the moment of indiscretion with Bautista, and half of the Golden State Warriors there’s more substance to them than Bolt.
Newton is the reigning MVP and an NFL quarterback. Straight up, he wouldn’t be even a third-string QB in the CFL if he didn’t have something going on upstairs.
Bautista’s power at the plate is not just a result of athleticism, but it is also a product of regular studying of scouting reports. There are lots of Major Leaguers with Bautista’s physical attributes, but not all of the smarts that are needed to both recognize pitching patterns and then to transfer that recognition into empirical results.
The Golden State Warriors aren’t just guys that run fast. They grasp and run complex offensive systems with superior abilities that took them to an NBA record for regular-season wins last season.
Usain Bolt, in comparison, wins ever-so-basic foot races and yet he still seems to think that he’s god’s gift to sports. Let’s think about that for a second.
Athletics are designed to isolate the simplest forms of strength – they are not meant to include a chess-match component, at least not a difficult one. Who jumps the furthest, who jumps the highest, who throws the furthest, who lifts the most weight, and who runs the fastest? Those are the questions that Olympic athletes in the athletics competitions answer. The races do not speak all that heavily to intelligence.
But I certainly do understand that training is different: learning how to do something better than everyone else in the world is a tough problem to solve – even just for a footrace. For that reason, I don’t actually think that Usain Bolt is on the slow side mentally. However, if “Stupid is as stupid does” then we can’t ignore that Bolt’s career is one with repeated moments of royal stupidity. Every single time that he turns around and affronts his competitors he’s losing respect – and he’s motivating them further.
Additionally, I think a lot of Bolt’s in-race behavior has to do with the fact that lanes don’t get crossed in sprinting. I’ll show you what I mean with reference to Newton and Bautista.
Newton’s arrogance pushes the boundary, but he doesn’t quite go too far. That’s because if he did he knows that there’d be some helmets in his ribs pushed extra hard. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a ton of linemen and linebackers dreaming about sacking him blindsided next season.
Baseball players don’t normally gesture after hitting a home run because they don’t want the beanball next time. We need only look at what happened to Bautista in Texas earlier this season as a case in point.
For better or worse, it’s the threat of physical retaliation, perhaps cloaked as part of the game, that actually holds arrogance in check in a lot of sports. For better or worse, sprinting doesn’t have that because it’s no contact. Make no mistake about it: Bolt’s off-the-charts arrogance references the fact that there’s no equivalent to unnecessary roughness, beanballs, or hard elbows in sprinting.
But when Bolt falls from grace due to aging, I think it will be overly celebrated – and no, not all athletes have the end of their prime stomped on. Roger Federer, who is at the opposite end of the humility-arrogance spectrum as Bolt, will hear a sad eulogy when he can’t compete on the ATP Tour anymore.
All Bolt had to do in Rio and elsewhere was cross the finish line and then celebrate. Instead, he routinely reversed the acts: he chose to look back at his competitors mid-race and to smile at them to highlight just how easy they were to beat.
In the big picture, Bolt might not be Forrest Gump. But in the small picture, comparisons could be made. In the isolated moments when Bolt decided to affront his competitors with such nauseating arrogance, he had to be the stupidest jerk alive but, like Forrest Gump, the Jamaican sure is fast.