Fastest Human: Usain Bolt

A tall sprinter dances across the finish line

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This segment is part of the IEEE Spectrum series “Fastest on Earth.”

David Letterman: Our next guest won three gold medals for Jamaica and set three new world records. Please welcome the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt.

Susan Hassler: Following the 2008 Beijing Olympics, talk-show host David Letterman stands to greet Usain “Lightning” Bolt. The gold medalist dance-jogs his way onto the stage. Letterman’s a tall guy—6 foot 2—but he’s three inches shorter than Bolt.

Usain Bolt: I’m actually the tallest sprinter there—I have a lot of complaints from the shorter athletes. So I was like, “It wasn’t my fault you didn’t grow this tall.”

Susan Hassler: Letterman cues up Bolt’s 200-meter Olympic win.

David Letterman: Let’s take a look at the 200.

Susan Hassler: Bolt’s in the middle lane. He surges ahead of the other seven runners who trail him in a V formation, like birds in flight.

David Letterman: Look at the lead. Look at the lead you’ve got here.

Susan Hassler: Racing 23 miles an hour, Bolt beat the world record by two-tenths of a second. He also set the world record for the 100-meter dash—9.69 seconds. But some have criticized Bolt for sloppy performance during that race. Twenty meters from the end, he threw his arms out to either side and half-ran, half-danced his way to the finish line. 

Hans Kristian Eriksen: It made this race one for the history books. This is what people are going to talk about for a very long time.

Susan Hassler: Hans Kristian Eriksen is an astrophysicist at the University of Oslo. For fun, he and a few colleagues computed that had Bolt kept up his acceleration, he would’ve finished the race more than a tenth of a second faster. And in fact, a year later, at the Berlin World Championships, Bolt did just that—he broke his own world record by running 100 meters in 9.58 seconds. Eriksen marvels at these times.

Hans Kristian Eriksen: There has been an extremely well-predicted evolution in the world-record time for the last 60 years or something like that—until Usain Bolt came around. And he went much faster than those calculations would’ve predicted him to do. Nobody has improved the world record as fast as he has done.

Susan Hassler: Eriksen thinks it’s only a matter of time before Bolt runs the 100 meters in less than 9.5 seconds. And he’s certainly got opportunities on the world stage.

David Letterman: You got maybe two more Olympics in you?

Usain Bolt: Yeah, probably. I’m thinking about it.

David Letterman: Nice to meet you. World’s fastest man, ladies and gentlemen.

Photo: Ian Walton/Getty Images
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