Taking the gold: The cheetah wins the gold medal for fastest land animal sprinter. But other animals can fly and swim even faster, leaving humans way below bronze. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Malene Thyssen
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At the 2008 summer Olympics, Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter, broke two world records, earning the title "the world's fastest man." He sprinted 100 meters in 9.69 seconds and 200 meters in 19.30 seconds.
Bolt's top speed of 37.6 kilometers per hour (23.4 miles per hour) is impressive for us humble humans. But it's barely a jog for many animals. In a global competition, we would not even medal. N. C. Craig Sharp, of the Center for Sports Medicine and Human Performance at London's Brunel University, ranks some of the top-performing animals in a new review paper published online last month in Veterinary Record.
"Major sporting events such as the Olympic Games highlight extraordinary human athletic achievements, performed by the extreme physical outliers of our species," he wrote in the review. "However, there is a range of animal performance that goes far beyond these."
The classic footrace winner, sprinting at an astounding 104 kph (64 mph), is the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). But some of the other super-quick wild species might surprise you. And the fastest animals of all literally fly.
When it comes to endurance, though, we can go the distance. Samuel Wanjiru won the 2008 gold metal for the marathon, running the 42.2 km (26.2 miles) in 2 hours, 6 minutes and 32 seconds. (The current world record belongs to Patrick Makau Musyoki, who ran a 2011 marathon about three minutes faster.) And in uneven terrain, humans can beat horses over a 35.4-kilometer (22-mile) distance, Sharp noted.
Plenty of animals, from racehorses to dogs, have been bred to run fast—and in the case of huskies, long. But even the speediest thoroughbred horses and greyhounds have not run much faster than about 70 km per hour (43.5 miles per hour). Nature, on the other hand, has selected only an elite subset of animals to reach top speeds.