Who’s the World’s Fastest Runner?

Justin Wolfers’s excellent post on Usain Bolt‘s extraordinary 200-meter race mentions in passing that “it is only a fairly recent phenomenon that the 200-meter typically yields a faster average speed than the 100-meter sprint.” We’re living in a topsy-turvy world where the world-record pace is faster on a longer distance than a shorter distance.

When Bolt set a new world record in the 100-meter race last May, lots of people declared him to be the “World’s Fastest Man.” But to my mind, he didn’t legitimately take that title — neither then nor last Saturday when he lowered his own 100-meter record to 9.69 seconds at the Olympics.

Even after Bolt’s Olympic 100-meter, Michael Johnson had a strong claim to be the world’s fastest.

One of the amazing things about Johnson’s 1996 world record in the 200 meters is that his pace or average speed for the 200-meter record was faster than the average speed for the fastest 100 meters. Johnson, covering twice the distance and running the curve, was able to sustain an average speed of 9.66 seconds per 100 meters. At the time, Donovan Bailey‘s world record in the 100 meters was 9.84 seconds.

So to my mind, Michael Johnson became the world’s fast human in 1996. His act made it clear that the difficulty of having to accelerate from zero in the first 100 meters could outweigh the disadvantages of additional distance and the curve. (This cool graphic shows that Michael Johnson wasn’t the first 200-meter record holder to have a faster pace than the 100-meter record; Tommie Smith pulled off a similar feat in the 1960’s.)

The world record in the 100-meter race has been lowered or matched eight times since 1996 (including times that have been later voided for doping), but no one in the 100-meter — including Usain Bolt with his current 9.69 record — has ever run at a lower average speed than Johnson’s 1996 record.

Bolt’s 200-meter record earlier this week is important because he can now truly claim to be the world’s fasted human — averaging 9.65 second per 100 meters.

Now that Johnson and Bolt have overturned the simple notion that average speed declines with distance, it becomes slightly harder to figure out what distance race in track would maximize average speed. Would it be 10 meters, 50 meters, 150 meters, or 300 meters?

It’s also far from clear whether Bolt’s new average speed record will stand. Bolt ran 9.69 seconds in the 100-meter race without giving his full effort for the last 20 meters. He might be able to run 100 meters at an average speed that is faster than his own 200-meter average speed. Bolt may not have many other close rivals, but the lens of average speed gives him a new way to compete against himself.


Topi

The fastest man ever was Bob Hayes! He run in Tokyo 4x100m relay about 8,6 s and in cinder track 1964! No one has ever beaten that time. And think nowadays tracks, training, equipment, nutrition etc. I am sure Hayes cuold have run 100 m at least 9,5 seconds, but how much faster?

v9has

Would the average time for 200m not be skewed when halving to compare to 100m?

The slower part of the race (first 10m) time would be halved thereby not giving an accurate comparison to 100m.

Possibly a better comparison would be to take the first 10m out of the equation for both and to compare the average time over 90m vs 190m.

Similar arguement could be applied in favour of 200m where there is a bend involved therefore not accurate to compare to a straight 100m race.

Lacey

Well that was an unecessary. If Johnson started from a stand-still as Bailey did, Johnson would not have ran a "9.66". Not only did Bailey beat Johnson head to head at 150 m, his relay split of 8.95(which provides the all important running start that Johnson had for the second leg) in the 4x 100m was faster as well. Johnson simply was not faster than Bailey at the 100 m ( or 150m for that matter) distance.

jimi

Rick #31:

Instantaneous velocity is a very real thing. It is derived with calculus as t2-t1 aproaches zero.

Jared

Give me a good miler over a 100m runner any day. That to me is the one race that combines the hype required to attract a top notch talent pool, sprint speed at both the beginning and end of the race, and the guts to maintain a high rate of speed for an extended period of time. This is the one race that does this.

Also, to the guy that claimed someone on the Jamaican 4x100 team ran a 9.28, they're not running from a standstill. They're on the move, and the fact that the handoff zones allow some to run longer or shorter legs also affects the distance calculated.

I will also add this: many have claimed that China's track is the fastest in the world. I would give Usain a .01-.02 bump for that alone. His shoes were worth about .01 over MJ's, as well. That's .025 right there. The headwind slowed him down about .02. So, he and Johnson were virtually even when you take it in those terms.

I've always wondered if Johnson faked that injury in the 150m race. I've got a friend that works at the Michael Johnson training center. I've been pleading with him to ask. On a side note, after the race the staff at the Michael Johnson training center got an email from the training center where Bolt trains that said "Take dat."

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Bob

There's some appeal to numerical analysis, but why not simply accept real life results?

The issue whether Michael Johnson or Donovan Bailey was the world's fastest man was settled on the track in 1997.

Bailey challenged Johnson to a 150 metre race; 75 metres of curve and 75 of straightaway.

Johnson accepted and was easily beaten by Bailey.

Nina

Thank you, Noah (#18). I had noticed the exact same thing.

I think the competition measures who can arrive to the finish line first, not who the fastest running human is. Isn't this what sports is all about?

AaronS

I'm sure someone already mentioned it, but maybe the 100M is really not the "fastest person" but the "fastest accelerator."

It's not about who actually can run a 100M stretch in the shortest amount of time...but rather who can run from a dead stop to the end of 100M in the fastest time.

AaronS

I wonder if coming off the blocks takes up precious time in the 100M that a runner with a full head of steam (say somewhere in the middle of a 200M run) can overcome?

I personally think that it would be useful to measure ANY 100M section of a race to determine the world's fastest 100M. That is, if in the middle of the 400M run, someone averages (or is measured for 100M) a time faster than the fastest 100M, then THEY are the fastest 100M.

Of course, that would take the 100M kind of out of the running for an Olympic event.

John

Comparing average sustained speed over the 200 vs average sustained speed for the 100 is not quite a fair comparison.

When you take into account the time it takes to get from 0 to top speed, this hurst the 100m sprinter more than the 200m - since in the second half of the 200m, the sprinter does not have to start from a dead stop - thus he gets to boost his average by factoring in an extra 100m all at top speed.

As far as this being a recent phenomanon, I believe that's a testament to conditioning. Today's runners can pretty much sustain their top speed for a 200m race.

Ian

Well the maximum AVERAGE speed could obviously not be attained in a 10 or 50m run. That's not rocket science. It would heve to be somewhere between 101m and 399m.

An interesing event would be the fastest 10, 20 or 50m in a 100 to 200 m run. We have the technology to measure this quite accurately. I would bet that runners could easily break 11m/second at their peak.

sadie

how fast did he go

Scott

"Now that Johnson and Bolt have overturned the simple notion that average speed declines with distance"

This statement would be more accurate if stated "...overturned the simple notion that average speed *always* declines with..."

One flaw in this reasoning is assuming that a time-to-distance result has a direct relationship to a speed based result. In cars, for instance, it is a little known fact that Car A can have a better 0-60 mph time than Car B but still be behind Car B at the moment it (car A) reaches 60 mph.

In the case of these sprint races, each is designed specifically and only to find out who can reach the specified distance first. If you want to really judge if the distance affects a person's overall average speed, you would need to run both races with a flying start. In this case, I suspect you would find that the "simple notion" is 100% true that all runners all over the world can hold a higher average pace for 100m than for 200m.

Further, it could just as rightfully be said that even as the races are run today, runners hit a higher peak speed in the 100m than the 200m since the 100m is long enough to allow them to reach their peak and since they don't have to pace themselves for nearly twice the total duration of exertion.

All you've basically proven is that the 200m is so close in duration to the 100m that the loss of speed is partially and occasionally completely outweighed the higher proportion of time spent accelerating from rest.

It also stands to reason (though all you can do is reason since the races are not designed to prove anything other than time-to-distance) that a runner that trains specifically for a ~10 second burst will be faster than a runner than trains specifically for a ~20 second burst. The structure of the events themselves may not demonstrate that, but it's true. In fact, I suspect that Bolt was actually faster in his 100m than in his 200m races.

Let's say he accelerated at identical rates for the first 50m of each race. Then he spent 50m running at his top speed for the first race and 150m running at his top speed in the 2nd race. If you ignore the time and distance spent accelerating in each race, I suspect you'd find that his last 50m of race 1 were at a faster pace than the last 150m of race 2.

Finally, it should be noted that if your analysis really worked in describing who is "the fastest", then Johnson would have been a much better 100m runner than he was. The fact that Johnson lost so much performance when moving to the 100m proves that competing in the hundred does require extra top-end speed that he could never find.

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cy

Roger, under your view wouldn't ultra marathon runners be faster than marathon runners? And to take it a step further, doesn't your line of reasoning suggest that the fastest car in the world is the one with the most miles on it?

Silas

There was some talk during the Olympics that Bolt's best race would be the 400M. (I would guess because of his lanky frame). If this is the case, I could see him shattering Michael Johnson's 400M record, which was run at an average pace of 10.795/100M. My point is that the optimal distance to measure speed is completely based on the sprinter's endurance. If Bolt reaches his maximum speed at 50 or 60 meters, his average speed would continue to increase as long as he is able to sustain that. I suspect that, as training continues to become for high tech, and our runners more super human, that the longer sprints will be considered the greater measure of speed.

Sean M

The world's 'fastest man' is all relative.

As others have pointed out, everything from instantaneous top speed to 'sustained speed over X meters' can be used to define who is fastest.

It's just slicing up the data to generate numbers that support one hypothesis vs. another.

X

Here is another problem for those who favor measuring instantaneous speed:
In the 200m final, one of the runners dove over the line and edged out another to win the bronze. It is conceivable that the dive gave him the highest instantaneous speed for a very brief period (though unlikely on those particular facts). By your standards, we should name him the "World's Fastest Man" based on that dive - that doesn't seem to fit anyone's conception...

Roger

Wouldn't the world's fastest man actually be the marathoners. They cover the most amount of distance and are able to hold their pace of just under 13 MPH for such a long time. Bolt may be fast, but he'll never out run a marathoner.

Noah

Before 1996, the winner of the 100m sprint was considered the world's fastest man. Then a Canadian won the 100m and an American won the 200m, and all of a sudden the winner of the 200m sprint was the world's fastest man.

After these Olympics, I expect Americans to start claiming that the world's fastest man is the winner of the 100m freestyle in the pool.

X

Chappy:
My optimal distance is not your optimal distance. Which of us is right?