Tackling the myth that Usain Bolt would lose a 40m race to Jonny May and Hector Bellerin

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There was a passionate reaction amongst elite athletes when Usain Bolt equalled the NFL 40-yard dash record last weekend.

American football players have been contesting the distance for decades, yet Bolt came swaggering along in tracksuit bottoms and trainers to match the time of Jon Ross without breaking a sweat. It drove a sharp dagger through claims that American footballers could match track and field specialists over some of the shorter and more explosive sprints.

That's not to mention the fact Christian Coleman had actually gone one better in 2017, clocking a time of 4.12 seconds to completely shatter the record. And it doesn't bear thinking about just how fast Bolt would have been able to run if he was wearing spikes, started in blocks and had actually trained consistently for the last two years. 

Bolt's run finally gave athletes the mainstream ammunition to tackle the myth that sprinters were no faster than the quickest competitors from other sports. It's been a genuine point of contention in athletics for some time and there have been plenty of familiar examples with footballer Hector Bellerin and Rugby player Jonny May proving the most notable examples.

However, while their recorded speeds and times are certainly impressive, it's about time that the headlines of them being 'faster than Usain Bolt' are put to rest. 

Did Bellerin really run 4.42 seconds?

Let's start with Bellerin. It was reported in 2015 that the Arsenal full-back had broken the club record for 40 metres, recording a time of 4.42 seconds in the process. That's a time faster than Bolt's first 40m when he broke the 100m world-record at the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin.

Of course Bellerin isn't going to be faster than Bolt over 100m, but perhaps he really is quicker over the shorter distance? Nope.

First of all, the lack of evidence makes the Bellerin time contentious to say the very least and for it to even be a fair comparison, the Spaniard would have needed to have started from zero, a standstill. It's unlikely that the 23-year-old would have been wearing sprint spikes in a football training session, it's doubtful whether he'd be trained to use blocks and the run was surely recorded over grass. 

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Could Bellerin beat Bolt over 40m?

But, for one minute let's pretend that Bellerin really did run 4.42 seconds over 40m from a 'standing start'. At this point, he should really consider changing sports because not only is it faster than Bolt's world-record effort but it takes the victory by a ridiculous 0.23 seconds. That might not sound like much, yet it basically translates to a thrashing over 40m.

Even if we take the fastest 10m splits from any 100m world-record in history, cherry-picking the perfect start to a race, we end up with a final result of 4.53 seconds. Even the fastest recorded reaction time - which was later chalked off for drug charges - combined with Bolt and a wind-aided run from Tyson Gay can't overcome the reported time.

At this point, we can safely assume that Bellerin's time was actually recorded with a running start. It's at that point that the time really becomes ordinary, though, and if we allow the same rules for Bolt, the Arsenal man would be in for an absolute battering.

Taking the 10m split data from Bolt's world-record run in Berlin, here are the different hypothetical times that Bellerin would be pitting himself against:

10m-50m: 3.58 seconds
20m-60m: 3.41 seconds
30m-70m: 3.32 seconds 
40m-80m: 3.28 seconds
50m-90m: 3.28 seconds
60m-100m: 3.29 seconds

Take your pick, every single interval sees 4.42 seconds ripped to shreds.

You could give Bolt anything from a 10m head-start to more than the race distance itself and the Jamaican is simply unstoppable, even when the interval seems too explosive for him. Now, we're not criticising Bellerin who never floated the idea of a race with much seriousness, but the raw data simply hasn't been explored as much as it should have been. 

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We can even look at the direct comparison set by Cristiano Ronaldo - who has recorded a similar mid-game top speed to Bellerin, by the way - during his fascinating appearance on 'Ronaldo: Tested to the Limit.' There, the then 26-year-old was handily beaten by professional sprinter Angel David Rodríguez over 25m and by a yawning 0.3 second margin at that.

If anything, it raises important questions about how misleading a single piece of data can be, because it genuinely seems as though Bellerin could have been a better short sprinter based on the evidence. That's simply not the case when you delve a little deeper, though, unless the Arsenal man is secretly the fastest man to walk the planet.

What about Jonny May?

And that brings us to the very different case study of Jonny May, a story which resurfaced in the Express after Bolt's assault on the 40-yard record. The Leicester Tigers player recalled his shock in 2017 when he recorded a speed of 10.49 metres-per-second during a training run over approximately 40 metres. All that and he was recovering from a hamstring injury.

The punchline here was that Bolt had 'only' averaged a speed of 10.43m/s during his world-record at the Olympiastadion in Germany. It was even calculated that if May was able to maintain his pace during training that he would record a historic 100m time of 9.53 seconds. Hmm. 

There's several ways we can dismantle the idea that May is faster than Bolt in this instance. First and foremost, suggestions of a competitive 100m can be rubbished when we consider the Jamaican actually clocked a top speed of 12.4m/s during his run in Berlin, making a mockery of May's recording.

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Analysing the top speeds

What about if we shift the rules to 40m? First, let's remove the idea that the 10.49m/s was his average, as that would work out at an approximate time of 3.81 seconds, which would make the 28-year-old some kind of superhuman.

We've got to consider that we're dealing with May's top speed and in terms of data from Bolt's greatest performance, we're limited to calculating mean speeds based on his splits. Nevertheless, you can break down Bolt's run into any 40m chunk you so please and he will still have clocked one of the 10m splits at an average speed over 10.49m/s.

Even if we gave May every chance in the world and piled together the slowest parts of Bolt's race, he would still reach a speed of over 11m/s and that's being conservative. The only discrepancy is the opening 1.89 second split that Bolt recorded during his first 10m, but we're highly doubtful that the recovering May peaked in the opening two seconds of his run.

You could also bring in factors like surface type, footwear, wind speed, clothing and attitude to try and pick holes in the comparison. Bolt, for the record, set the greatest time in history just 34 metres above sea level and with a legal wind reading of +0.9m/s. 

All those calculations are without looking deeper into the physics of running, something explored in far more detail on Speedendurance.com back in 2015. They raise important points about velocity and all the timing differences between athletes and football that can be checked out here.

Jamaica's Usain Bolt celebrates winning

Conclusion

For many, establishing that the fastest man in history is quicker than May and Bellerin will be greeted with a shrug of the shoulders and that's exactly how it should be. Yet the idea that Bolt could be beaten by an athlete from another sport seems to rise in plausibility when the distance is reduced to just 40m.

Isolated statistics with no video proof, little context and used in unfair comparisons seem to make for cheap claims that they are faster than an eight-time Olympic champion. It's not the rugby and football players themselves, rather the hyperbole it generates, prompting athletes to post impassioned tweets and - in the case of Richard Kilty - make high-stakes race offers.

Neither May nor Bellerin are under any illusion that they stood a chance but the minutia of the hypothetical races have largely been brushed under the carpet. If anything, simply breaking down the numbers makes for a kinder result than if one of these athletes really sat in the blocks aside Kilty or even an unfit Bolt. 

Besides, the fastest recorded 100m time from a rugby player is actually 10.68 seconds from Doug Howlett and Leroy Sane actually holds the Premier League speed title as opposed to Bellerin. Case closed. 

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