Sunday, August 1, 2004
Justin Gatlin of the United States won the men’s 100-meter Olympic final last night with a time of 9.85 seconds. If you watched the race, you heard him described as “the world’s fastest man.” Someone needs to break it to the announcers: He’s not. The world record in the 100-meter dash is 9.78 seconds, set by Tim Montgomery in 2002. His average speed was 22.87 miles per hour. The world record in the 200-meter dash is 19.32 seconds, set by Michael Johnson in 1996. His average speed was 23.15 miles per hour. If we go by average speed, therefore, the fastest man in the world is Michael Johnson, not Tim Montgomery or Justin Gatlin. Perhaps the announcers are talking about top speed rather than average speed. Carl Lewis was clocked at 26.95 miles per hour during one of his 100-meter races at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. I doubt that Michael Johnson reached that speed at any point during his record-breaking 200-meter dash at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. So perhaps the announcers are referring to top speed rather than average speed when they use the expression “world’s fastest man.” But since top speed isn’t routinely recorded, they’re only guessing. I think they simply assume that the best 100-meter runner has a higher average speed than the best 200-meter runner. If so, they’re wrong. For my money, Michael Johnson is the world’s fastest man.