Social Science blog

11 July 2012


In the plethora of TV programmes about the Olympics, one recent BBC offering has really stood out: ‘Faster, higher, stronger’, a one hour broadcast which looks in almost forensic detail at specific Olympic events like the 100 metres, swimming, the metric mile & gymnastics.

The first programme in the series – the 100 metres – was a micro-analysis of what happens within that crucial 10 seconds, and described the ingredients for winning: the perfect start (aided nowadays by starting blocks and the runner’s crucial angle of ascent); explosive muscular power in the central stage of the event which generates crucial forward propulsion; the ability to stave off the inevitable deceleration in the last few metres, and finally the crucial dip towards the line.

Great runners from the past and present were featured in fast and slow motion, and these talked a lot about attitude: the crucial frame of mind in which you really believe you can win (and which you can hopefully convey to your opponents).

One of our articles on the Sport and Society website takes a similar look at the finer details of an event: ‘Running [the 400m] with Jon Silman’ describes the actual experiences, physical & mental, undergone by an athlete in the course of a race (complete with wonderful images by Rebecca Andrews). It gives us a window into something which normally flashes by, and shows how time can stand still for the runner himself. Interestingly enough, this idea about the relativity of time is emphasised by the 100 metre runners in the BBC programme. One of them suggests that the 10 seconds (now rather less than 10 in fact) may seem impossibly fast to the crowd observing it, but to the runners it feels almost like a ‘life time’ . Here's a link to Tanya's article below:

 This idea of how time can be psychologically compressed or expanded according to the nature of the physical event is a fascinating one and gives us some idea of how essential  it is to have the right (i.e., the appropriate) mindset in a race. The quickness of the 100 metres requires a corresponding mental shorthand: an ability to process all the emotional elements of a race (and its preliminaries) in quick time.  Marathon runners have totally different issues to face, and no less difficult ones. No wonder sports psychology is a burgeoning field.

 The  crucial nature of getting it right in the 100 metres, and the drama created by the luminaries of the event have spawned numerous books and articles over many years, some of which are listed below. It would be interesting to see how speed theory has progressed since the first Olympic sprint final saw a winner’s time of 12 seconds.


 Duncanson, Neil The fastest men on Earth: the story of the men’s 100 metre Olympic champions London: Andre Deutsch, 2011

London reference collections shelfmark: YK.2012.a.13888

 Sands, Robert R Instant acceleration: living in the fast lane: the cultural identity of speed Lanham, Md; London: University press of America, 1995

London reference collections shelfmark: YC.1995.a.2129

 Morton, J W How to run 100 yards London: British Sports Publishing, 1906

London reference collections shelfmark: 07908.1.14/9

 Goater, Julian; Melvin, Don The art of running faster Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2012

London reference collections shelfmark:YK.2012.b.5716




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