The Pursuit of Speed

Recent human history has, as Jeremy Clarkson constantly loves to point out, been dominated by the pursuit of speed. Everywhere we look, we see people hurrying hither and thither, sprinting down escalators, transmitting data at next to lightspeed via their phones and computers, and screaming down the motorway at over a hundred kilometres an hour (or nearly 100mph if you’re the kind of person who habitually uses the fast lane of British motorways). Never is this more apparent than when you consider our pursuit of a new maximum, top speed, something that has, over the centuries, got ever higher and faster. Even in today’s world, where we prize speed of information over speed of movement, this quest goes on, as evidenced by the team behind the ‘Bloodhound’ SSC, tipped to break the world land speed record. So, I thought I might take this opportunity to consider the history of our quest for speed, and see how it has developed over time.

(I will ignore all unmanned human exploits for now, just so I don’t get tangled up in arguments concerning why a satellite may be considered versus something out of the Large Hadron Collider)

Way back when we humans first evolved into the upright, bipedal creatures we are now, we were a fairly primitive race and our top speed was limited by how fast we could run.  Usain Bolt can, with the aid of modern shoes, running tracks and a hundred thousand people screaming his name, max out at around 13 metres per second. We will therefore presume that a fast human in prehistoric times, running on bare feet, hard ground, and the motivation of being chased by a lion, might hit 11m/s, or 43.2 kilometres per hour. Thus our top speed remained for many thousands of years, until, around 6000 years ago, humankind discovered how to domesticate animals, and more specifically horses, in the Eurasian Steppe. This sent our maximum speed soaring to 70km/h or more, a speed that was for the first time sustainable over long distances, especially on the steppe where horses where rarely asked to tow or carry much. Thus things remained for another goodly length of time- in fact, many leading doctors were of the opinion that travelling any faster would be impossible to do without asphyxiating. However, come the industrial revolution, things started to change, and records began tumbling again. The train was invented in the 1800s and quickly transformed from a slow, lumbering beast into a fast, sleek machine capable of hitherto unimaginable speed. In 1848, the Iron Horse took the land speed record away from its flesh and blood cousin, when a train in Boston finally broke the magical 60mph (ie a mile a minute) barrier to send the record shooting up to 96.6 km/h. Records continued to tumble for the next half-century, breaking the 100 mph barrier by 1904, but by then there was a new challenger on the paddock- the car. Whilst early wheel-driven speed records had barely dipped over 35mph, after the turn of the century they really started to pick up the pace. By 1906, they too had broken the 100mph mark, hitting 205km/h in a steam-powered vehicle that laid the locomotives’ claims to speed dominance firmly to bed. However, this was destined to be the car’s only ever outright speed record, and the last one to be set on the ground- by 1924 they had got up to 234km/h, a record that stands to this day as the fastest ever recorded on a public road, but the First World War had by this time been and gone, bringing with it a huge advancement in aircraft technology. In 1920, the record was officially broken in the first post-war attempt, a French pilot clocking 275km/h, and after that there was no stopping it. Records were being broken left, right and centre throughout both the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, right up until the breakout of another war in 1939. As during WWI, all records ceased to be officiated for the war’s duration, but, just as the First World War allowed the plane to take over from the car as the top dog in terms of pure speed, so the Second marked the passing of the propellor-driven plane and the coming of the jet & rocket engine. Jet aircraft broke man’s top speed record just 5 times after the war, holding the crown for a total of less than two years, before they gave it up for good and let rockets lead the way.

The passage of records for rocket-propelled craft is hard to track, but Chuck Yeager in 1947 became the first man ever to break the sound barrier in controlled, level flight (plunging screaming to one’s death in a deathly fireball apparently doesn’t count for record purposes), thanks not only to his Bell X-1’s rocket engine but also the realisation that breaking the sound barrier would not tear the wings of so long as they were slanted back at an angle (hence why all jet fighters adopt this design today). By 1953, Yeager was at it again, reaching Mach 2.44 (2608km/h) in the X-1’s cousing, the X-1A. The process, however, nearly killed him when he tilted the craft to try and lose height and prepare to land, at which point a hitherto undiscovered phenomenon known as ‘inertia coupling’ sent the craft spinning wildly out of control and putting Yeager through 8G’s of force before he was able to regain control. The X-1’s successor, the X-2, was even more dangerous- despite pushing the record up to first 3050km/h  one craft exploded and killed its pilot in 1953, before a world record-breaking flight reaching Mach 3.2 (3370 km/h), ended in tragedy when a banking turn at over Mach 3 sent it into another inertia coupling spin that resulted, after an emergency ejection that either crippled or killed him, in the death of pilot Milburn G. Apt. All high-speed research aircraft programs were suspended for another three years, until experiments began with the Bell X-15, the latest and most experimental of these craft. It broke the record 5 times between 1961 and 67, routinely flying above 6000km/h, before another fatal crash, this time concerning pilot Major Michael J Adams in a hypersonic spin, put paid to the program again, and the X-15’s all-time record of 7273km/h remains the fastest for a manned aircraft. But it still doesn’t take the overall title, because during the late 60s the US had another thing on its mind- space.

Astonishingly, manned spacecraft have broken humanity’s top speed record only once, when the Apollo 10 crew achieved the fastest speed to date ever achieved by human beings relative to Earth. It is true that their May 1969 flight did totally smash it, reaching 39 896km/h on their return to earth, but all subsequent space flights, mainly due to having larger modules with greater air resistance, have yet to top this speed. Whether we ever will or not, especially given today’s focus on unmanned probes and the like, is unknown. But people, some brutal abuse of physics is your friend today. Plot all of these records on a graph and add a trendline (OK you might have to get rid of the horse/running ones and fiddle with some numbers), and you have a simple equation for the speed record against time. This can tell us a number of things, but one is of particular interest- that, statistically, we will have a man travelling at the speed of light in 2177. Star Trek fans, get started on that warp drive…

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Why we made the bid in the first place

…and now we arrive at the slack time, that couple of weeks between the end of the Olympics and start of the Paralympics where everyone gets a chance to relax, wind down a little, and take time away from being as resolutely enthusiastic and patriotic as we have been required to for the last two weeks (or a lot longer if you factor in the Royal Wedding and Queen’s Jubilee). However, it’s also an undoubtedly good time to reflect on what have been, whatever your viewpoint, a very eventful last couple of weeks.

To my mind, and certainly to those of the Olympic organisers, these games have been a success. Whether you feel that it was all a colossal waste of money (although how anyone can think that of an event featuring the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter alongside James Bond is somewhat puzzling to me), or the single most amazing thing to grace the earth this side of its existence (in which case you could probably do with a nice lie down at the very least), its motto has been to ‘Inspire a Generation’. From a purely numerical perspective, it appears to have worked- sports clubs of all sorts up and down the land, even in niche areas such as handball, have been inundated with requests from enthusiastic youngsters after membership, and every other sentence among BBC pundits at the moment appears to include the phrase ‘the next Mo Farah/Usain Bolt/Ben Ainslie/Chris Hoy’ (delete as applicable).

However, I think that in this respect they are missing the point slightly, but to explain what I mean I’m going to have to go on a bit of a tangent. Trust me, it’ll make sense by the end.

So…, what is the point of sport? This has always been a tricky one to answer, the kind of question posed by the kind of awkward people who are likely to soon find an answer flying swiftly towards them in foot-shaped form. In fact, I have yet to hear a convincing argument as to exactly why we watch sport, apart from that it is for some unexplained reason compelling to do so. But even if we stick to the act of participation, why do we bother?

Academics and non-sportspeople have always had a whole host of reasons why not, ever since the days that they were the skinny, speccy one last to be picked in the dreaded playground football lineup (I’ve been there- not fun). Humans are naturally lazy (an evolutionary side-effect of using our brains rather than brawn to get ahead), and the idea of running around a wet, muddy field expending a lot of precious energy for no immediately obvious reason is obviously unappealing. Then we consider that the gain of sport, the extent to which it contributes to making the world a better place is, in material terms at least, apparently quite small. Humankind’s sporting endeavours use up a lot of material for equipment, burn a lot of precious calories that could be used elsewhere around the world to help the starving, and often demand truly vast expenses in terms of facilities and, in the professional world, salaries. Even this economic consideration does not take into account the loss in income presented by the using up of acres upon acres of valuable land for sports facilities and pitches. Sport also increases the danger factor of our lives, with a heavy risk of injury ranging from minor knocks to severe, debilitating disabilities (such as spinal injury), all of which only adds to the strain on health services worldwide and further increases the ‘cost’ of sport to the world.

So why do we bother with it at all? Why is it that the question governments are asking themselves is “why aren’t enough kids playing sport?” rather than ‘why are so many of them doing so’? Simple reason is that, from every analytical perspective, the benefits of sport far outweigh the costs. 10% of the NHS’ entire budget is spent on dealing with diabetes, just one of a host of health problems associated with obesity, and if just half of these cases were to disappear thanks to a healthier lifestyle it would free up around an extra £5 billion- by 2035, diabetes could be costing the country around £17 billion unless something changes. Then there are the physical benefits of sport, the stuff it enables us to do. In the modern world being able to run a kilometre and a half in four minutes might seem like a pointless skill, but when you’re being chased down the street by a potential mugger (bad example I know, but it’ll do) then you’d definitely rather be a fit, athletic runner than slow, lumbering and overweight. Sport is also one of the largest commercial industries on earth, if not on a professional level then at least in terms of manufacture and sale of equipment and such, worth billions worldwide each year and providing many thousands or even millions of jobs (although some of the manufacturing does admittedly have a dubious human rights record). The health benefits of sport go far beyond the physical & economic too, as both the endorphins released during physical activity and the benefits of a healthy lifestyle are known to increase happiness & general well-being, surely the ultimate goals of all our lives. But perhaps most valuable of all is the social side of sport. Whilst some sports (or, more specifically, some of the &%^$£*)@s involved) have a reputation for being exclusive and for demoralising hopeful youngsters, sport when done properly is a powerful force for social interaction & making friends, as well as being a great social equaliser. As old Etonian, heir his father’s baronet and Olympic 110m hurdles finalist Lawrence Clarke recently pointed out in an interview ‘On the track it doesn’t matter how rich your family is or where you’ve come from or where you went to school; all that matters is how fast you can get to the finish line’ (I’m paraphrasing, but that was the general gist). Over the years, sport has allowed mixing between people of a myriad of different genders and nationalities, allowing messages of goodwill to spread between them and changing the world’s social and political landscape immeasurably. This Olympics was, for example, the first in which Palestinian and Saudi Arabian women competed, potentially paving the way for increased gender equality in these two countries.

Clearly, when we all get behind it, sport has the power to be an immense tool for good. But notice that nowhere in that argument was any mention made of being the physical best, being on top of the world, breaking world records because, try as one might, the value of such achievement is solely that of entertainment and the odd moment of inspiration. Valuable though those two things surely are, they cannot begin to compare with the incalculable benefits of a population, a country, a world united by sport for the good of us all. So, in many respects, the success of an Olympic games should not be judged by whether it inspires a new superstar, but rather by how it encourages the guy who turns up with him at that first training session, who might never be that good a competitor… but who carries on turning up anyway. The aim of top-flight sport should not be to inspire the best. It should simply be to inspire the average.

Who is most impressive?

As one or two of you may have noticed, the Olympics are almost over, prompting the requisite large party and giving some Brazilians a chance to wear odd clothes, dance about and generally play to stereotypes (probably- I’m feeling a little cynical today). However, in not too long a time that other, perhaps more understated, tetrannual sporting party will get underway: the Olympics’ disabled cousin, the Paralympics.

In some ways this will be a spiritual homecoming for the Paralympic Games- founded in 1948 for ex-servicemen with spinal injuries after the Second World War, it was the brainchild of Dr. Ludvig Guttmann of Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Great Britain (the sports centre at Stoke Mandeville is still called the Guttmann centre in his honour, and one of the two mascots for London 2012 is called Mandeville). Guttmann was a Jew, and had emigrated from his native Germany in 1939 to escape persecution from the Nazi government of the time. He founded the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke in 1944, and founded the ‘Stoke Mandeville Games’ (to coincide with the 1948 London Olympics) in response to his feeling that sport could be use as a form of therapy for the seriously disabled, giving them purpose and self-respect. His vision was a great success, ballooning in size and popularity until, in 1960, it became officially tied to the Olympics proper (it wasn’t called the Paralympics until 1984). Guttmann himself was showered in praise for his work, being awarded (among other things) a CBE, OBE, and a knighthood in 1966.

Since then, the Paralympic movement has continued to inspire and amaze. Since 1960 non-war veterans have been eligible to compete, and multiple categories of disability have been entering since 1976. For many, the very existence of the Games has been a beacon of hope for lives torn apart by accident or injury, something to focus their otherwise unspent athletic energies upon, and thus fulfilling Guttmann’s vision of sport as a therapy. For a special few, they have been a springboard to their being able to compete amongst able-bodied counterparts, in sports ranging from sprinting to shooting to swimming.

Paralympians, obviously, do not have the physical capacity to match able-bodied competitors in the majority of situations, and as such, on a purely numerical basis, they are ‘less impressive’. Human nature dictates that we thus find them less interesting and compelling to watch for an extended period of time, a problem compounded by the sheer number of different classifications, leading to a huge number of medals and competitions and thus a confusing and some might say unfocused set of events that becomes impossible to keep track of (there are, for instance, six different classes of cerebral palsy 100m sprinting, giving the athletes concerned 6 times less attention, 6 times less focus and interest and making their medals seem only a sixth as valuable).  All this means that the amount of funding and (especially) media coverage offered to the Paralympics is significantly less than the Olympic equivalents, despite a great advance in recent years, and that they are simply not taken quite as seriously as Usain Bolt & Co.

All of which begs the obvious question: are Olympians really better than their disabled counterparts, or do the mental battles, financial struggles, and management of trying to hold down a paying job before we even consider the crippling physical impairment enough to render Paralympic Athletes even more impressive?

This question ultimately boils down to a question of which is more impressive- being the best in the world, or being merely far, far better than the rest of us mere mortals despite having to overcome. To consider an example, the world record for 100m sprinting in the most severe class of blindness is 11.03 seconds, less than a second and a half slower than Usain Bolt’s fastest ever time and far faster than anyone I happen to know- and this is done whilst entirely unable to see where you are going.

OK, you might say, but blindness doesn’t actually affect physical capability, so what about something that does. Consider the shot put, which involves throwing a large metal ball weighing 16lb (7.26kg) as far as possible with a rigidly monitored technique. 7kg is a surprisingly ungainly mass at the best of times, but when compacted into a small, dense ball thrown in one hand it becomes even harder to handle. I have thrown a shot in school, much lighter than an Olympic one, and got it about 2 metres. Karmel Kardjena is quadriplegic, as in all limbs severely damaged to the point of muscles not working properly, and can throw it 11.

These are just examples I can find on Wikipedia that make for a good comparison- I’m sure a dedicated student of the Paralympics could quote dozens more. Perhaps the most famous Paralympian of all, South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius (aka Bladerunner) won a silver medal in the 2011 World Championships INSERT BIT ABOUT 2012 WHEN HE’S DONE IT (competitions he entered despite a 2008 ruling, which he later successfully appealed, that the carbon fibre replacements for his amputated forelegs were giving him an unfair advantage). He is competing amongst the very best in the world, regardless of the fact that he has no calves or feet, and he is representative of the sheer quality that is surely present among Paralympians.

However, in order to judge our argument effectively, we must still consider how impressive our able bodied athletes are. I have already dedicated an entire post to just how superhuman these people are, but it’s worth taking another look around at the plethora of talent on display over the last fortnight to truly comprehend that. To take a parallel with Kardjena, let us consider the equivalent men’s shot put record. We must, of course, bear in mind that able bodied athletes are capable of not only taking a hopping run-up but also twisting the full trunk of their body, but even so, their achievements are staggering- the world record is over 23 metres (interestingly enough still shorter than the shortest discus throw in Olympic history, at 25).

So then, which is better? Well, to be honest it really comes down to a matter of opinion. Some may believe that the sheer quality of Olympic athletes cannot be made up for by the disabilities of Paralympians, whilst others will say that they more than cover for it and that the Paralympics is the home of real sporting greats. But, in many ways, this argument is entirely irrelevant, if only because we could argue until the end of time and not reach an answer. The real fact to acknowledge is simply that these Paralympians are clearly not here ‘just to take part’- they are serious athletes going in serious competition and capable of seriously amazing things. Whether Oscar Pistorius is better or worse than Usain Bolt matters not so long as we are all agreed that both of them are so great, so beyond what any of the rest of us can do, that they deserve every ounce of admiration we can muster. As the father of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, famously said: “The important thing in life is not the victory but the contest; the essential thing is not to have won but to have fought well”

And sorry for the rather lame cop-out

What good are Olympians?

In my last post I talked about the Euro 2012 football tournament, an event that no European could hope to ignore unless they lived in a particularly well-soundproofed cave. The event I’m going to talk about today however, has a strange power akin to osmosis meaning that it is physically impossible to avoid hearing about it from any distance less than 50 miles from any living being or, if you live in Britain, the centre of the earth. It is, of course, the London 2012 Olympics.

Olympians are, of course, the pinnacle of human physical perfection- or so we keep on being told, despite Usain Bolt’s famous obsession with chicken nuggets. In fact, it can be hard, on occasion, to believe just how amazing Olympians are meant to be. This is especially true given the amount of media attention they have attracted in recent times presenting them as ‘just normal people’, involving talks with their families and discussions of their home lives and ‘normalness’.

To an extent, some of their achievements don’t seem to be super-amazing either, when you think about it. Usain Bolt is a prime example- the man is the fastest on earth and is able to cover 100 metres in a little under 10 seconds.  This, we are told, is amazingly exceptional- despite the fact that anyone watching athletics willquickly notice a far larger number of people all able to run the same distance in less than a second more time. Then there are the dozens of other amateur or schoolboy sprinters, and fast sportsmen such as rugby wingers, who are able to do their 100 in around 11 seconds- in fact one England Sevens player (Dan Norton) has been clocked as quicker than Bolt over 20 minutes, and as a sportsman rather than athlete probably has a broader range of physical skills than him. Admittedly, most of us are probably not going to come close to any of that- but the fastest guy any given person knows is likely to be able to cover 100m in around 12 seconds, despite probably having no formal sprint training and not dedicating their lives to running very quickly in a straight line for an incredibly short period of time, which is perhaps not the most versatile of life skills.

A similar idea can be applied to quite a range of Olympic fields. Most people who keep themselves fit and lead an at least reasonably active lifestyle could cover 400m in around a minute with a little practice, so perhaps covering it in 45 seconds is not something super-amazing. I am not an especially serious rower, but I use a machine occasionally and can clock a time over 2000m of around 7:30- just a minute slower than the men’s world record on-water time for single sculls, and only 2 minutes slower than the record for a machine. A lot of blokes in the pub would consider themselves enough of a dab hand in a fight to be an at least reasonable boxer with a bit of training, and amateur boxers can’t be all that amazing can they? And have you seen the bows they use for archery? They make a laser sniper rifle look like a nerf gun- anyone could hit a target with one of those, surely?

And that’s before you even consider the practical implications of what it means to be an Olympian- I’ll use handball as an example. Up until winning the bid for the 2012 games, Britain had never had a handball team, and after the people who run these things had insisted that Team GB would enter a competitor in every event they had to produce an acceptable outfit within 4 years. This meant recruiting from people who’d already played high level sport (which mainly ended up being rugby players and basketballers) and retraining them as handballers. This required them all to spend countless weeks at special training camps. Most of them had to give up their jobs and entire lives for a worse-paid job with poorer facilities, all in pursuit of their one shot at the Olympics. As far as I know, they have yet to win a game. Surely a balanced life, sampling all there is of the human experience, makes one a better person than this relentlessly single-minded devotion?

Well… maybe, but to sell the achievements of an Olympian short is to seriously devalue them. True, in some events the differences between amateur and world-leading may not be huge, but in others the difference can be truly staggering. Consider distance running- I consider myself to be a reasonably fit guy, and go running of occasion around a 4-mile (6.4 km) course near where I live. There’s the odd small hill, but the majority of it is flat. I can cover that course in about half an hour, by the end of which I am usually sweating like a paedo in a nursery (my apologies for the rather crude expression). However, the other day a news item I saw featured a 10km event in which a few soon to be Olympians were taking part. Bear in mind that this course was over half as long again as mine… and yet they covered it in three minutes less time than I could my course. And they barely looked tired. Worse still, at my rate of running it would take me around three and a quarter hours (assuming I could somehow replicate my pace for six and a half times the distance) to complete a marathon, whereas even a mediocre Olympic marathon runner would expect to hit just two. Usain Bolt can typically keep a top speed of around 12 metres per second up for around 4 or 5 seconds, whilst a marathon runner can keep up six for hours on end. Consider events such as the javelin- they might look all light and easy to throw, but from experience trust me, they’re not. I can get one perhaps 15 metres- an Olympian six times that distance. In a long jump, most of us would struggle to exceed a metre or two, whereas the poorest Olympian jumper can hit six or seven with ease.

In these events the gulf in ability between an Olympian and a mere mortal is obvious- but do not be mistaken. That difference in terms of sheer class is present in every single Olympic discipline, and every athlete attending the games in London this year represents a world leader in their field. The Olympics is a showcase of the top 0.01% of the human race, and just how amazing we can be- and they deserve every ounce of admiration and respect that they get.