Defending Olympic champion Usain Bolt may be the fastest human on two legs, but he would struggle to outpace a raft of animals, including horses, which would leave him nearly 10 seconds behind over 200 metres.
A light-hearted comparison of the extraordinary athleticism of humans and animals published in the journal, Veterinary Record, shows that many animals trump humans for speed, strength and endurance, even those who display extraordinary Olympian athleticism.
Jamaican sprinter Bolt, currently the fastest man in the world, could not match greyhounds, cheetahs, pronghorn antelope, and horses for sheer pace.
Professor Craig Sharp, from the Centre for Sports Medicine and Human Performance at Brunel University in Britain, has highlighted a range of animals whose speed and strength easily beats that of our most elite athletes.
Humans can run at a maximum speed of 23.4 miles per hour (37.6kmh) or 10.4 metres per second. That kind of speed gives them the egde – but only just – over the Dromedary camel, with a top speed of 22mph (35.3kmh), or 9.8 metres/second.
A cheetah is around twice as fast as the world’s top sprinters at 64mph (104kmh), or 29 metres per second, but the pronghorn antelope also puts in a very respectable 55mph (89kmh), or 24.6 metres/second.
And let us not forget the North African ostrich, which, at 40mph (64kmh) or 18 metres per second, is the world’s fastest-running bird.
Sailfish can reach a swimming speed of 67mph (108kmh) or 30 metres per second.
Then, of course, there are thoroughbred racehorses, the fastest of which has managed 55mph (88kmh), and greyhounds at 43mph (69kmh).
And birds would win a few gold medals too.
Peregrine falcons can reach speeds of 161mph (259kmh), while ducks and geese rival cheetahs, with speeds of 64mph (103kmh) in level flight.
And when it comes to power, pheasant and grouse can generate 400 watts per kilogram — five times as powerful as trained athletes. The tiny hummingbird can manage 200 watts per kg.
And in terms of strength, an African elephant can lift 300kg with its trunk and carry 820kg. A grizzly bear can lift 455kg, while a gorilla can lift a whopping 900kg.
Human beings have adapted fantastically well to marathons and long distance running, aided by long legs, short toes, arched feet and ample fuel storage capacity, Sharp says.
But they might find it hard to beat camels, which can maintain speeds of 10mph (16kmh) for over 18 hours, or Siberian huskies, which set a record in 2011, racing for 8 days, 19 hours, and 47 minutes, covering 114 miles a day.
For the record:
- Usain Bolt ran 100 metres in 9.58 seconds; a cheetah ran the same distance in 5.8 seconds
- Usain Bolt ran 200 metres in 19.19 seconds; a cheetah covered the same distance in 6.9 seconds, the Australian racehorse Black Caviar in 9.98 seconds, and a greyhound in 11.2 seconds.
- Michael Johnson ran the 400 metres in 43.18 seconds compared with 19.2 seconds for a racehorse and 21.4 seconds for a greyhound.
- David Rushida ran 800 metres in 1 minute 41 seconds, compared with 33 seconds for the pronghorn antelope and 49.2 seconds for a greyhound.
- An endurance horse ran a full marathon in 1 hour 18 minutes and 29 seconds, compared with the 2 hours, 3 minutes and 38 second record of Patrick Makau Musyoki.
- In the long jump, a red kangaroo has leapt 12.8 metres compared to the 8.95 metres Mike Powell achieved. Its high jump of 3.1 metres exceeds Javier Sotomayor’s at 2.45, who is also trumped by the snakehead fish, which can leap 4 metres out of the water
“Citius, Althius, Fortius [Faster, Higher, Stronger] is the Olympic motto, but if we allowed the rest of the animal kingdom into the Games, and it was to select the peregrine falcon (161 mph), Ruppel’s vulture (37,000 feet) and the 190 ton blue whale as its representatives, we could not offer much competition,” writes Sharp.
“Or even if restricted to terrestrial animals, we could be up against the cheetah (65mph), the red kangaroo (3.1 metres) and the 12-ton bull African elephant.”
But no single species matches the physical versatility of human beings, he concludes, and that is what the Games are designed to display to best effect.