Tag Archives: London Olympics

Breaking the 9 second barrier?

Don’t bet on Prince Harry ever breaking the 9 second barrier. But how about Usain Bolt?

With the 2012 London Olympics set to go, many are wondering just how fast Usain Bolt and the sprinters will be able to go in the 100 metres. That showcase event is easily the most watched at the Games. It wasn’t that long ago that people asked whether humans could break the 10 second barrier (unaided by performance enhancing drugs)

At the BBC’s Future webpage, Ed Yong is asking whether it’s possible to predict whether the 9 second barrier will ever be broken:

That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer, and ploughing through the record books is of little help. “People have played with the statistical data so much and made so many predictions. I don’t think people who work on mechanics take them very seriously,” says John Hutchinson, who studies how animals move at the Royal Veterinary College in London, UK.

The problem is that the progression of sprinting records is characterised by tortoise-like lulls and hare-like… well… sprints. People are getting faster, but in an unpredictable way. From 1991 to 2007, eight athletes chipped 0.16 seconds off the record. Bolt did the same in just over one year. Before 2008, mathematician Reza Noubary calculated that “the ultimate time for [the] 100 meter dash is 9.44 seconds.” Following Bolt’s Beijing performance, he told Wired that the prediction “would probably go down a little bit”.

John Barrow from the University of Cambridge – another mathematician – has identified three ways in which Bolt could improve his speed: being quicker off the mark; running with a stronger tailwind; and running at higher altitudes where thinner air would exert less drag upon him. These tricks may work, but they’re also somewhat unsatisfying. We really want to know whether flexing muscles and bending joints could send a sprinter over the finish line in 9 seconds, without relying on environmental providence.

To answer that, we have to look at the physics of a sprinting leg. And that means running headfirst into a wall of ignorance. “It’s tougher to get a handle on sprinting mechanics than on feats of strength or endurance,” says Peter Weyand from Southern Methodist University, who has been studying the science of running for decades. By comparison, Weyand says that we can tweak a cyclist’s weight, position and aerodynamic shape, and predict how that will affect their performance in the Tour de France. “We know down to 1%, or maybe even smaller, what sort of performance bumps you’ll get,” he says. In sprinting, it’s a black hole. You don’t have those sorts of predictive relationships.”

Yong concludes that people placing ceilings on human performance  are ill-informed.  For now, I’m waiting for someone to break the 9.5 barrier.


The Metric Mile – a contact sport?

Jim Ryun falls in 1972 Munich Olympics 1500 metres race

Great piece from the Wall Street Journal, as part of the lead-up to the London Olympics. The story looks at the riddle of running middle distances, and dealing with inevitable contact:

“For a sport that divides seconds into thousandths, physical contact is poorly measured. The incidence of touches, trips and tumbles is anybody’s guess. Even the rate of disqualifications for physical contact isn’t readily available. But it’s an open secret that track is a contact sport.

In sprinting, violations are easier to police, for each competitor is required to stay within his lane. And in distance running, slower paces offer the fallen a second chance, as when Finland’s Lasse Viren got up from the ground to claim the lead and gold medal in the 10,000-meter race in Munich.

But in middle distance running, physical contact is frequent, hard to police and not always accidental. A runner near the front can wreak havoc behind her by suddenly slowing down. Or “a runner gets behind you and tactically shoves you into the lead,” throwing you off pace, says Joan Hansen, a former U.S. Olympian who took a fall during the 3,000-meter run at the 1984 Olympics.”

The piece by Sara Germano and Kevin Helliker notes the 40th anniversary of American Jim Ryun’s disqualification in the preliminaries at the Munich Olympics. He was the world record holder in the 1500 metres at the time, but was hit from behind and fell with a third of the race to go. He claimed the hit was deliberate, but his appeal to be re-instated for the semi-final heats fell on deaf ears.

The contact element is even more interesting because running with the pack, and not out front alone, is a common strategy in the middle distances.