Question: Who will win the race to become the fastest man on earth?
a) Usain Bolt
b) Justin Gatlin
c) Greg Vollet
d) A woman
e) None of the above
a) At first sight the answer to the above question seems obvious. Usain Bolt holds the official World 100 metre record of 9.58s and has just completed a third triple gold medal haul at the Olympics (that’s in running not in the triple jump). He is the obvious choice. But on further analysis, there might just be another answer. I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective.
b) Justin Gatlin has been famously, or is it infamously, banned for periods of time for using “banned” drugs but he did run 100m in 9.45s to lock out Bolt’s time by 0.13s. This was when he openly cheated in a Japanese Game show, assisted by giant fans, (I mean wind generators not crowds of large cheering people). Gatlin completed this feat in 2011 but the wind machines were generating a 20 km/h tailwind which is outside the allowed limit for official records of +2 km/h. Wind is only beneficial to athletes in these shorter sprinting events while in longer events such the 400 metres, wind slows down athletes. At first sight this seems counter-intuitive but the time for which the athlete is helped by the wind is less than the time when he or she battles against it, so the tailwind and headwind don’t quite cancel each other out in the overall speed.
c) Who is Greg Vollet? He won a silver medal in the European Mountain Bike Championship in 1999 and now runs the Salamon International Team that competes in the world's biggest mountain and trail races. In 2012 he broke the world 100 metre record by running down a very steep mountain slope (although official electronic timing was not used).
d) Could the fastest man on earth be a woman? Researchers at Oxford University think so. They have analysed times for both men and women over 100m and assuming the improvements by both sexes continue at the same rate, they controversially predicted that women should “overtake” men by 2156 in a time of 8.079 seconds. Whether physiological differences between the sexes will prevent this from happening, remains to be seen.
e) Now why do we focus on the 100 metre race to measure running speed? Bolt holds the world record for both the 100m and 200m but his time for 200m (19.19s) is only just slower than twice his time for 100m (2 x 9.58 = 19.16). Since records were kept, this has changed back and forth so, at times, the 200 metres was run at a faster average speed than the 100 metres. In the 4 x 100m relay, where the last competitor has a running start and doesn’t have to worry about handing on the baton, several sub 9 second times have been recorded including 8.65s by Bolt.
When all is said and done, the fastest human foot speed was recorded by Bolt in his 2009 world record in Berlin and clocked at 44.64km/h which means if he ran down the road in a school zone at this rate, he would be breaking the law!
f) As a footnote to this discussion, it would be remiss of me not to mention Special Relativity which shows an interesting connection between time and speed. During a race, the finishing time on the stadium clock and the watch on Usain Bolt’s wrist would differ by about 6 x 10-15 seconds. From Bolt’s point of view, he ran the distance faster than the time displayed on the stationary clock. So which time piece is correct? Well, it does depends on your perspective (literally). The observer sees the race from a stationary position and reads the stadium clock. However, from Usain Bolt’s standpoint, the track is (ever so slightly) shrinking towards him as he runs so you could say, in conclusion, that he never really finished the race!
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