The physics of track and field – insane Usain “Lightning” Bolt

Hans Eriksen and his colleagues at the University of Oslo have estimated that Usain Bolt could have possibly won the 100 m dash at the Beijing Olympics in 9.55 seconds. Here’s the arXiv version of the paper. Their approach is actually pretty interesting in that they compared his acceleration profile to that of runner-up Richard Thompson who did not celebrate in the final stretch. They note that even Thompson decelerated a bit in the final stretch. As someone who used to run the 100 m dash, most people can’t hold their top speed for that long a distance and, without realizing it sometimes, will begin to slow a bit as they reach the end. In any case, the idea is that by comparing him to Thompson they were able to estimate a theoretical upper bound on his run (if he did not celebrate). Then, taking into account the differences with Thompson, they estimated the lower bound of 9.55 seconds.

This is really cool stuff from a pedagogical perspective and serves to demonstrate the power of simple physics. They have submitted it to the American Journal of Physics and I sincerely hope they get it published in that journal since it has such a wide readership. I will say it is the only scientific paper I’ve ever read – probably the only one on the arXiv – that acknowledges a pizza delivery guy (apparently they ordered a half-Thai Chicken and half-Heavy Heaven pizza from a place called Peppe’s which is no doubt going to become famous if this paper really takes off).


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