ESPN Grantland: Is the Fastest Human Ever Already Alive?

Sports journalist Chuck Klosterman quotes SMU’s Peter Weyand, an expert in human locomotion, in the July 12 article “Is the Fastest Human Ever Already Alive?

Klosterman looks at the evolution of track’s 100-meter dash and runners’ repeated shattering of the world record for the race. In discussing the mechanics of human speed, he quotes Weyand on how it relates to a runner’s physiology and the force sprinter’s apply to the ground.

Weyand, who is widely quoted in the press for his expertise on human speed, is an SMU associate professor of applied physiology and biomechanics in the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education & Human Development.

He led a team of experts in biomechanics and physiology that conducted experiments on Oscar Pistorius, a South African bilateral amputee track athlete. Pistorius has made headlines trying to qualify for races against runners with intact limbs, including the Olympics.

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EXCERPT:

By Chuck Klosterman
ESPN Grantland

Allow me to spare you the hyperbole: Usain Bolt is fast.

He is, as far as we can tell, the fastest human who’s ever lived — in 2009, at a race in Berlin, he ran the 100-meter dash is 9.58 seconds. This translates to an average speed of just over 23 mph (with a top speed closer to 30 mph). His ’09 performance in Germany was .11 quicker than the 9.69 he ran at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the fattest chunk ever taken off a world record at that distance. Considering the unadulterated simplicity of his vocation and the historic magnitude of his dominance, it’s easy to argue that Bolt has been the world’s greatest athlete of the past five years. And yet there’s an even easier argument to make than that one: Within the next 10 years, Bolt’s achievements as a sprinter will be completely annihilated.

This is not guaranteed, of course, but it’s certainly more plausible than speculative — for the past 30 years, the men’s record in the 100-meter dash has been assaulted so continually that many of its former record holders don’t even qualify as difficult answers to trivia questions. This was not always the case: Jim Hines broke the 10.0 barrier with a 9.95 at the (high-altitude) 1968 Olympics; that mark stood for 15 years before Calvin Smith ran a 9.93 (also at altitude) in Colorado Springs. But since 1983, the record has been shattered more than a dozen times. Ben Johnson’s steroid-fueled 9.83 in ’87 was the first massive blow, but eight others have chipped away at the record with increasing regularity (Bolt just happened to use a sledge hammer). …

… “The scientific understanding of sprinting is pretty immature,” concedes Peter Weyand, and — since Weyand has become the de facto American expert on the science of sprinting — that tells you just how mysterious this phenomenon is. A physiologist and biomechanist at Southern Methodist University, Weyand specializes in terrestrial locomotion; while at Harvard in the ’90s, he directed experiments at Concord Field Station, a facility where researchers regularly placed animals such as cheetahs,1 wolverines, and kangaroos on treadmills to understand the mechanics of movement. Now 50, Weyand was also a fairly swift runner in his younger days, having run the 100-yard dash in 10.8 as a high school student. “The one thing about sprinting we all understand is that speed comes from how hard the runner’s foot hits the ground. Someone like Bolt is hitting the ground with 1,000 pounds of force, and we just don’t how he does that. For example, we have a very accurate understanding of how much weight someone can lift — we can take a person’s frame and his muscle mass and accurately estimate how much weight he’ll be able to bench press. But world-class sprinters deliver twice as much force as our estimates indicate, and we don’t know why.”

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