Usain Bolt and the Limits of Human Speed

Fairly certain I’ve covered this before (here and here, actually), but Chuck Klosterman delves into human speed, sprinting and Usain Bolt’s place in athletic history. It’s a fascinating read from start to finish.

Contradictory side note: We should not overlook the large contingent of long-distance runners who find the whole question of “the fastest man alive” patently ridiculous, simply because humans are all relatively slow (at least compared to most other major mammals). Humans are designed for distance running. Christopher McDougnall, author of the best-selling book Born to Run, actually thinks this debate is borderline sexist. “My bedrock feeling about sprinting is that we only get excited about it because boys are better than girls. Men set the entertainment agenda, so we pick the events that give us an edge over women. As a species, we’re awful sprinters. Really bad. The average amputee dog can hold his own against any high school track star. … It takes a really prosperous, secure society to perfect frivolous pursuits. In a way, our quest for speed isn’t far removed from (the MTV show) Jackass. But I’m a grouch.” Daniel Lieberman at Harvard (who, coincidentally, was Weyland’s anatomy instructor) makes a similar point, albeit for different reasons: “It’s useful to keep in mind that we should not be too impressed by Bolt and other speedsters. By mammalian standards, they are comparatively slow. Most decent quadrupeds out there — dogs, horses, zebra, lions — can run about 20 meters per second, twice as fast as Bolt, and they can do so for much longer (up to a few minutes). No Olympic sprinter could ever outrun a lion. We humans gave up the ability to run fast by mammalian standards many millions of years ago when we became bipeds and lost the ability to gallop. Instead, what humans excel at is endurance, especially on a hot day.” Of course, if we took all these arguments at face value, the Olympics would be pretty bizarre.

Just one of many pull quotes worthy of highlighting. The main point is that Bolt’s 9.58 100 meter world record is impressive because it is so fast. Some scientists speculate that humans are only capable of running a 9.4 or 9.45 max in the 100 meter sprint.

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