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In well over 100 years there have been only 25 men who have tasted the Olympian heights and laid claim to the title Fastest Man on Earth”. The stories of these fast men are an extraordinary blend of success and disaster, as well as glory and tragedy; ranging from amazing wealth to grinding poverty; superstar adulation and national hero status to bankruptcy, shame, prison, even suicide.
With arguably the sport's greatest every sprinter Usain Bolt on a one-man mission to rewrite the history books, it looks likely the fastest men that follow him will need to be even more extraordinary. These are perennial questions for fans of track and field, and the source of endless study and debate among scientists all over the world.
After the Berlin Olympics of 1936 and the Nazi sneers about “black auxiliaries” running for the United States, Jesse Owens agreed to take part in a revealing study. It had been dismissively suggested that the real reason for his Olympic triumph was that he possessed longer tendons in his feet, a physiological advantage, so scientists of the day surmised, of black athletes.
However, when the study results were published, it was discovered that Owens had, in fact, shorter tendons than all the other sprinters at the Games. In fact, Moscow was the last time any white man lined up for the Olympic 100 m final, and that was more than 30 years ago.
The debate can cause a good deal of political and cultural friction, and the scientists themselves have been accused of closet racism for suggesting natural differences may exist between the races. A fascinating study of the subject was made by think- tank scholar and journalist Jon Engine in his 1999 book theatrically entitled Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It.
But, in terms of running fast, there was also another, critical difference: a higher percentage of what physiologists call fast-twitch fibers. The talented and long-legged Lemaitre has since lowered his personal best to 9.92, but it's not false modesty when he admits he is simply running for a place in the 2012 Olympic final.
But Lemaitre is a significant exception to the rule of what makes the perfect fast man, and that leads us on to the next question. Mathematical models have always existed in sports, especially athletics, and they tend to chart a standard progression of world records in nice neat curves, with very occasional and sometimes unexplainable blips.
Usain Bolt has already beaten that curve by running 9.58secs in the 2009 world championships, a time that wasn't supposed to be possible, at least according to the mathematicians, for another 50 years. Indeed, the boffins only use existing data to extrapolate what might happen in the future, rather than examining the potential changes in human physiology or likely biological improvements.
In his intriguing 2010 book The Perfection Point, sports scientist John Breaks calculated the ultimate 100 m would be run in 8.99secs and that at the 55-metre mark the sprinter would be moving at 29.4mph. A futuristic view, from biostatistician Peter Wand of the Southern Methodist University, in Texas, who is best known for his studies of animal movement and performance, is that a five-second 100 m record is not impossible.
It sounds crazy but Wand believes humans will soon have the ability to modify and greatly enhance muscle fiber strength. He also believes that it is impossible for mathematicians to predict the magnitude of the “creakiness of athletic talent at the extreme margins of humanity.
Animal locomotion expert McCall Alexander, from the University of Leeds, says our main disadvantage is the size of our limbs. For a long time, experts assumed that our speed was limited by the maximum force our feet could generate against the ground.
But recent research suggested that the body could sustain more force but simply needed to move quicker, with the feet spending less time on the ground, which took them back to how fast the muscles could work. “When people run they are essentially bouncing through the air from one leg to another,” says Daniel Lieberman, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University.
All of which points to the reasons behind Usain Bolt's success, because he uses longer strides and during a 100 m race his feet remain on the ground less than his rivals. It may sound like a bad plot for a kids' cartoon but if the history of the fastest men on earth has taught us anything, then it's always to expect the unexpected.