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The Race to Be the World's Fastest Man

Usain Bolt of Jamaica
Jamaica's Usain Bolt is currently the world's fastest man.

Canadian sprinter Harry Jerome, the subject of Charles Officer’s documentary "Mighty Jerome," was once crowned the “fastest man on earth.” How does one earn such a superlative?

The fastest man on earth is the man who holds the record in the 100m dash. The International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) began ratifying this record in 1912, and the first record-holder was Donald Lippincott, an American who ran the distance in 10.6 seconds in a preliminary heat in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. In 1921, another American, Charlie Paddock, bested Lippincott’s record to finish in 10.4. Paddock was known for his prerace routine of downing a sherry mixed with raw egg, as well as his habit of leaping toward the finishing tape.

Over the decades, sprinters have gradually brought the record downward by shaving off tenths and hundredths of seconds off the time. Since 1912 the IAAF has ratified 67 world records for the 100m, some of them ties.

Of those who have held the title of "fastest man," one of the most legendary is the American Jesse Owens, who broke the 100m record with a 10.2 time in Chicago in June 1936. The next month, he went on to win gold in the event at the notorious Hitler-hosted Berlin Olympics, in addition to three other gold medals.

In July 1960 Harry Jerome clocked a time of 10.0 seconds at an Olympic trial, just three weeks after German sprinter Armin Hary had set the record with the same time. Jerome was a gold medal hopeful for the 1960 Rome Olympics but an injury forced him out of the final. Hary took the gold medal, with a time of 10.2 seconds.

Today, the world’s fastest man is Usain Bolt of Jamaica, who broke the previous world record set by himself by sprinting the 100m in 9.58 seconds in 2009 in Berlin. This was more than a full second faster than Lippincott almost 100 years before.

Bolt, who goes by the name "Lightning Bolt," is in a class by himself. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Bolt was so far ahead of the pack in the 100m that he had the leisure to slow down and look over his shoulder as he blazed toward the finish line. In certain victory, he beat his chest like Tarzan.

Photo credit: José Sena Goulão; some rights reserved.

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