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.

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  1. md says:

    Additionally, Bolt ran his 200m into a slight headwind, while Michael Johnson ran his with a tailwind that was just below the legal limit. That much more impressive.

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  2. Gary says:

    Interesting analysis! In the end, I think we all conclude that Usain Bolt is truly out of this world fast, as was Michael Johnson.

    Maybe I just didn’t notice it, but it didn’t seem like the runner’s outfits had the technological advantages the swimmers had this year. Is it unreasonable to think that if a swimsuit can give a swimmer an advantage by encouraging better body positioning, a runner’s outfit could do the same?

    Maybe we’ll see it in 2012.

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  3. Valpey says:

    Are we saying that with the multiplicity of camera angles and telemetric tracking systems at the Beijing Olympics we have no means of measuring instantaneous velocity?

    As for the question of what distance would yeild the highest average speed; I imagine that would be unique to each sprinter. But I would love to see Bolt run a 150 meter straightaway.

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  4. Ben D says:

    It seems to me that the “World’s Fastest Man” is the person who can run the fastest at TOP SPEED.

    Why rely on average speed at all? With modern technology (high speed cameras, etc), it shouldn’t be difficult to measure the “instantaneous” speed.

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  5. Danilo says:

    Dear Ayres,
    It’s important to point out that a normal athlete takes 60-70m to reach his max speed. The most amazing news from the Usain’s 100m was that he reached his full speed after 50m!! Carl Lewis used to take it at 60m!
    We probably would have faster average speed at 150m races. But it’s hard to imagine faster averages at 250m or 300m races.
    Cheers,
    Danilo

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  6. Josh says:

    “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.”

    Maybe, but let’s have Michael Johnson stop, and re-start from the blocks again at the midway point of his race. Otherwise, this comparison is simply not valid.

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  7. Dante says:

    The drama wouldn’t be the same as everyone running together, but for strictly measuring speed, the method at the NFL combine seems effective. The runner starts when he is ready and runs until he crosses a wire. It would be similar to watching any competition where each athlete competes individually and the highest-rated athletes are the last to compete.

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  8. Phoff says:

    I’m with Ben D on this one. Why are we concerned about average speed at all? It must be an American thing.

    I’m no math geek, but it seems to be that the avergage speed per 100m would almost always be faster on the 200m, as the sprinters don’t begin the second leg of the race at a standstill. Also, there is a slingshot effect from the turn.

    Top speed is, IMHO, the way to determine the “World’s Fastest Man” and, if we go back to 1996, Bailey was faster than Johnson.

    A non-sanctioned 150m race was held to determine who was faster between the two, but Johnson faked an injury when it was clear that Bailey was going to win by a fair margin.

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