Usain Bolt: The fastest man on earth and the secret of his speed

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When it comes to athletics record holders some questions are frequently asked

Question 1: Who is the fastest man on earth?

Question 2: Who has won 100 and 200 meters race thrice in Olympics?

Question 3: Who has maximum Olympics records?

Question 4: Who holds maximum records in athletics?

Answers may have some variations in terms of facts and records, but common thread is indeed Usain Bolt. Here is why:

Answer 1: Usain Bolt from Jamaica is the fastest man on earth. His 100m time of 9.58 seconds during the 2009 World Championships in Berlin is the current world record

Answer 2: Usain Bold has won 100 and 200 meters race thrice in Olympics (Beijing, London and now Brazil)

Answer 3: Usain Bolt is eight times Olympics champion

Answer 5: Usain Bolt holds maximum records in athletics. He is 13 times world champion

Between his Olympic successes Usain stayed firmly in the global spotlight winning three gold medals and setting two individual world records at the 2009 IAAF World T&F Championships in Berlin, Germany. He lowered his 100m time to a staggering 9.58 secs, his 200m time to 19.19 secs and running the third leg helped Jamaica to gold in the 4x100m. He defended his World Championships title in the 200m at the 2011 IAAF World T&F Championships in Daegu, Korea and anchored Jamaica to another world record of 37.04 secs in the 4x100m. In 2013 at the IAAF World T&F Championships in Moscow Usain won the 100m, 200m and 4x100m to make it 8 World Championship gold medals.

Usain is currently one of the biggest names in the world of sport – both on and off the track. But the million dollar question is – what is the secret of Usain Bolt’s electrifying speed? How does he manage it?

Scientists and physicists have been trying hard to decipher these riddles since long. Here are some answers

Scientists say they can explain Usain Bolt’s extraordinary speed with a mathematical model.

His 100m time of 9.58 seconds during the 2009 World Championships in Berlin is the current world record.

They say their model explains the power and energy he had to expend to overcome drag caused by air resistance, made stronger by his frame of 6ft 5in.

Writing in the European Journal of Physics, the team hopes to discover what makes extraordinary athletes so fast.

According to the mathematical model proposed, Bolt’s time of 9.58 seconds in Berlin was achieved by reaching a speed of 12.2 metres per second, equivalent to about 27mph.

Less dynamic

The team calculated that Bolt’s maximum power occurred when he was less than one second into the race and was only at half his maximum speed. This demonstrates the near immediate effect of drag, which is where air resistance slows moving objects.

They also discovered less than 8% of the energy his muscles produced was used for motion, with the rest absorbed by drag.

When comparing Bolt’s body mass, the altitude of the track and the air temperature, they found out that his drag coefficient – which is a measure of the drag per unit area of mass – was actually less aerodynamic than that of the average man.

Effects of drag

Jorge Hernandez of the the National Autonomous University of Mexico said: “Our calculated drag coefficient highlights the outstanding ability of Bolt. He has been able to break several records despite not being as aerodynamic as a human can be.

“The enormous amount of work that Bolt developed in 2009, and the amount that was absorbed by drag, is truly extraordinary.

“It is so hard to break records nowadays, even by hundredths of a second, as the runners must act very powerfully against a tremendous force which increases massively with each bit of additional speed they are able to develop.

“This is all because of the ‘physical barrier’ imposed by the conditions on Earth. Of course, if Bolt were to run on a planet with a much less dense atmosphere, he could achieve records of fantastic proportions.

“The accurate recording of Bolt’s position and speed during the race provided a splendid opportunity for us to study the effects of drag on a sprinter.

“If more data become available in the future, it would be interesting to see what distinguishes one athlete from another,” added Mr Hernandez.

Bolt’s time in Berlin was the biggest improvement in the record since electronic timing was introduced in 1968.

Large stride

John Barrow at Cambridge University who has previously analysed how Bolt could become even faster, explained that his speed came in part due his “extraordinary large stride length”, despite having such an initial slow reaction time to the starting gun.

“He has lots of fast twitch muscle fibres that can respond quickly, coupled with his vast stride are what give him such an extraordinary fast time.”

He said Bolt has lots of scope to break his record if he responded faster at the start, ran with a slightly stronger tail-wind and at a higher altitude, where there was less drag.

Bolt’s Berlin record was won with a tail wind of only 0.9m per second, which didn’t give him “the advantage of helpful wind assistance”, he added.

“You’re allowed to have a wind no greater than 2m per second to count for record purposes, so without becoming any faster he has huge scope to improve,” Prof Barrow told.

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