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The fastest men on Earth: Why Usain Bolt and his rivals fascinate us

Sure, the Olympics are great, but they can be better. (AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS)
Roar Guru
22nd July, 2016
27

Every four years, for approximately 9.63 seconds, the world holds its collective breath.

In four weeks time we shall do so again. And perhaps this time we won’t even have to hold it that long.

For there is a certain Jamaican gentleman who will put in everything he has, to save us our breath, and hit the tape before we can say Usain St. Leo Bolt.

Since Rio is upon us, the time is indeed ripe to look at the Olympics and see the history of this race.

We have had 28 Men’s 100-m races in Olympic history, in the 116 years to London 2012. The time that Tom Burke, the first gold medal winner of the event at Athens, took to complete the race was 12 seconds. It took just one Olympics to lower that by a second when Frank Jarvis ran it in 11 seconds at the 1900 Games in Paris.

It was another 68 years before Jim Hines broke the 10 second barrier aided by the high altitude in Mexico. But since Carl Lewis broke that sacred mark in 1984, and the winning times have stayed below 10-seconds and indeed improved with each successive Olympics.

2012 then saw the remarkable scene of seven runners complete the race under 10-second for the first time in history. Usain Bolt leading the pack and finishing in his inimitable style, accompanied by all the showmanship he has come to be associated with.

It is a fact that the Men’s 100m has become the most marketable event of the Olympic Games, and now provides the grand finale of the event.

In 2012 at the London Olympic Games, one million people bid to buy tickets to be at the stadium for the 100m finals! There were only 40,000 tickets on sale. One of the highest priced tickets finally cost A$1836 per second on the black market to watch Usain Bolt run. And if you wanted a Corporate Hospitality Package, the cost would be A$4600 per second!

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So what’s the reason for this fascination? There is perhaps not one, but a myriad of explanations.

First, physically, sprinters are the finest specimens among humans. The fastest sprinters have large fast-twitch type IIb muscle fibres which are bigger and bulkier, hence the muscular appearance.

10 seconds is not enough time for oxygen breathed in by human beings to reach the muscles.

These IIb type muscles, however themselves have the energy they need to function anaerobically for a short period. Hence the incredible burst of speed.

Its natural human tendency, whether you are a man or a woman, that when you have ten perfect specimens running incredibly fast in front of you, that you will pay attention.

An interesting aside is that a study has shown that Jamaican athletes with West African ancestry have significantly more fast-twitch muscle fibres than runners from other parts of the world.

Does that have an impact on Olympics gold medal winners? You decide:

– Usain Bolt’s ancestry is West African.
– Carl Lewis’ folks originally came from West Africa.
– Ben Johnson was born in Jamaica. And, hold your breath….. his folks came from West Africa too!
– Justin Gatlin had West African ancestors.
– Linford Christie was a Jamaican of West African descent who emigrated to England with his parents when he was seven-years old.
– Donovan Bailey, who won the Gold in 1996, was a Jamaican-born Canadian sprinter of West African descent!

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So, other than the 2000 Sydney Olympics winner Maurice Green, every 100m gold medal winner (including Ben Johnson who was later stripped of his medal for doping), has been of West African descent!

Second, the short nature of the race is exactly why, in this modern world of instant gratification, the 100m race has won over the crowds.

When you can have a result in less-than 10 seconds, why would watch a marathon for two hours?

Finally, the need for speed is a part of human psyche. The ability to get from Point A to Point B in the fastest possible time has always fascinated man.

From legs to wheels to wings, the progress of humankind, to some degree, is the result of this need for speed. No one blames the spectator who feels that the most bang for his buck, when he watches sport, is to see the fastest man on the earth perform for his very eyes!

So how far can human beings push their bodies? 9.63 seconds is an incredibly short space of time. Scientists, who are working on finding out the limits of how fast humans can run, are reluctant to put numbers on their thoughts.

While it’s clear that neither Usain Bolt nor his successors will ever outrun a Cheetah (it runs 100m in 5.79 seconds), there is probably some room to run faster than Bolt has already run. A perfect start, a perfect acceleration and limited deceleration are all components. Bolt gets close to perfection – the fastest human we’ve ever seen.

Maybe it will take another 20 years to beat the nine second barrier, or maybe it won’t. What is clear is that when Usain Bolt and his fellow sprinters line up at the starting line at the Olympic Stadium at Rio on 14th August 2016, there will be no empty seats, and the only noise we shall hear will be the starting gun and the roar as the fastest man on earth crosses the finish line, a little over nine seconds later.

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