There is no doubting Usain Bolt’s excellence. On Sunday night, the Jamaican sprinter strode past the rest of the field to claim his third consecutive Olympic gold in the 100-meter race, becoming the first man or woman to do so. He was anointed afresh as the world’s fastest man, and will have a chance to cement his status as such in the 200-meter race tonight.
But should the winner of the two shortest races really be called world’s fastest person? On the same day that Bolt prevailed in the 100, South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk set a world record in the 400, a race where Bolt’s personal best of 45.28 would have resulted in his finishing behind all eight runners competing in the final. And it’s worth noting that in Sunday’s 100, Bolt trailed the U.S.’s Justin Gatlin over the first 50 meters or so before ultimately overtaking him. Given that Bolt would have lost a race half as long as the 100, and twice as long as the 200, it seems that his status as “world’s fastest man” is as much a consequence of distance as it is of speed.
Let’s give Bolt some credit though. In addition to his three Olympic golds in the event, he holds the record for the fastest 100-meter dash ever run. On a different Sunday night, this one during 2009 IAAF Athletics World Championships in Berlin, Bolt blazed across the finish line in 9.58 seconds. The following day, the IAAF released his 20m split times; between the 60m and 80m marks, Bolt averaged a speed of 27.79 mph. No human, so far as we know, has ever hit 27.8.
This would seem to end any “fastest man” argument, until you consider that we rarely measure speed by one’s peak moment within an event. Take swimming: according to a message from Swimming Science, the “fastest points [during a race] are the start, then the turn.” Swimmers therefore hit their peak velocities in the two aspects of the heat that involve the least swimming.
Michael Phelps has been celebrated as the finest butterfly swimmer who ever hit a pool. He holds the 50m pool world record in the 100m and 200m butterfly. But another swimmer, Chad le Clos of South Africa, has actually tallied faster 100m and 200m butterfly times. Le Clos achieved these marks in a 25m pool, which allows for more turns—and therefore faster times. But would many people really push the argument that le Clos is a better—or faster—swimmer than Phelps?
Which brings us back to the caveat of a race’s distance. As a species, we’re much better suited for a marathon than a sprint. In a 2004 paper published in Nature, anthropologist Daniel Lieberman and biologist Dennis Bramble conclude that “humans perform remarkably well at endurance running.” (This is in no small part because we sweat—some of us profusely—to release excess body heat, whereas many other animals are reduced to a much-less-efficient panting.) A dog may beat us humans in a 100-meter dash, but would almost certainly take silver in a race of any great distance.
Mo Farah might argue then that as the winner of the 10,000-meter race—a race in which humans are comparatively stronger—he deserves a share of the world’s fastest man title. As might the winner of this coming Sunday’s Olympic marathon, which, thanks to man’s evolutionary advantage, won’t stretch into yet another Sunday night.