How Fast is Usain Bolt?

Jamaica’s Usain Bolt defended his gold medal in the 100 meter dash, breaking his own Olympic record. The NYT has a graphic showing how far behind previous Olympic medal performances would be:

The 2012 version of Bolt would have finished 6/10 of a meter ahead of the 2008 version. And a whopping 2.9 meters ahead of the 1988 performance of the legendary Carl Lewis—itself an Olympic record (although not the fastest 100 at Seoul; Canadian Ben Johnson’s result was invalidated for use of performance-enhancing drugs). Ralph Craig, who won gold 100 years ago, would have finished 10.8 meters behind Bolt. Alojz Sokol, who won the inaugural modern Olympiad in 1896, would have been 23.6 meters in the dust.

Granted, the running surfaces, shoes, uniforms, and such have changed over time and have contributed small differences to the improvements in performance over the years. But it’s mostly due to improvements in training and nutrition.

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Murray says:

    An other way to appreciate Bolt’s speed is that the next 4 competitors in this final did there personal best and the top five would have been ahead of Lewis in Seoul.

    And also 7 were bellow 10s, it would probably been 8 if Powell hadn’t injured himself.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Mr. Bolt’s feat notwithstanding, studies are suggesting that in track and field, in particular, today’s athletes are beginning to reach the limits of human capability. For example, force studies have found that there’s a remarkably large amount of potentially tapped energy available for additional sprinting speed, just not in the context of the gait used by today’s sprinters.

    What changes would be required? Nobody knows.

  3. Franklin says:

    Bolt’s speed is impressive. His actual top speed (not his average speed), measured during his record 100m run in 2009, is about 27.78mph according to Wikipedia. Now I’ve known of bicyclists who got speeding tickets, I wonder if they would give one to Bolt if he did that on a residential street?

    By the way, 200m times tend to have higher average speeds than 100m times due to the ‘overhead’ of reaction time and acceleration.

  4. al-Ameda says:

    These athletes are amazing, and I do wonder if we’re approaching limits.

    The 400M race is now at the point where elite athletes run four (4) 11-second 100Ms all the way around – phenomenal.

    It’s getting to the point where the 800M event is becoming a sprint. Elite runners are running 53 second quarters now.

    The 1500M now has the elite running 55 second quarters too.