The World's Fastest Man was the name of a track and field "showdown" that was intended to discern who, in fact, was the fastest human on the planet. It took place on June 1, 1997, at the Skydome, in Toronto, Ontario. The two men who participated in this farce were Michael Johnson of the USA and Donovan Bailey of Canada.
The question that this event brings to mind is, "Well, what are the Olympics and world championships for then, if not to find The World's Fastest Man?" To answer this, you need some back-story.
Logically enough, the root of the problem began at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. On July 27, 1996, in the men's 100 meter dash final, Donovan Bailey won with a time of 9.84 seconds, and broke the world record by .01 seconds. Traditionally, the record holder in the 100 meter dash is regarded as "The World's Fastest Man," and Mr. Bailey gladly accepted it.
However, five days later, in front of a hometown crowd, Michael Johnson won the 200 meter dash final in a time of 19.32 seconds. This smashed his previous record which he had set in the US Olympic Trials earlier in the year. Before that, the record had stood untouched for 17 years. His time at the Olympic finals was .4 seconds faster than the 17-year-old record, and .34 seconds faster than his own previous record. This, coupled with fact that the second 100m of Johnson's race was completed in just 9.10 seconds, led a number of people including Johnson's sponsor, Nike, to refer to him as "The World's Fastest Man".
Of course, time without actual speed measurements only gives average speeds. Bailey's 9.84s over 100 meters gives 10.16 m/s. Johnson's 19.32s over 200 meters earns him 10.35 m/s, and 9.10s for the last 100 meters has him reaching 10.99 m/s. Measured splits throughout each race would have been useful, but up until this point nobody had a need for super-accurate splits at less than every 100 meters. So the math did point to Johnson, but tradition pointed to Bailey.
Conflict of PR and advertisers (Bailey was sponsored by Adidas) was heated, and was further fueled by self-indulgent sports journalists who confidently doled out hypothetical race results. The sponsors and media, of course, saw this as a great opportunity to sell tickets to SOMETHING.
Of course, a face-off race was the obvious choice. But, therein lay the wrinkle: Bailey didn't stand a chance against Johnson in the 200m (he had been beaten by Johnson on multiple occasions), and Johnson would be toast in a 100m (Johnson doubled with the 400m instead, unlike most 200m runners).
Q: So if either standard race distance was unfair, what should they run?
A: Obviously, a 150 meter race!
To the seasoned track fan, this should have been treated as little more than a curiosity. The 150m dash is not, and never has been, an official event of track and field. A race at this distance would determine as much as a race around the block.
But, nonetheless, a race was organized. It went without saying that the race would have a turn; this was seen by some analysts as an advantage for Johnson: The 200m has a full turn and a full straight, the 100m is just a full straight. However, since the race was held in Toronto, Bailey had the literal home-team advantage.
Both athletes had an immediate complaint about the track: The degree of curvature was nowhere near that of a normal 400 meter track (100 meters for each turn and each straight). This track, apparently in effort to reduce Johnson's advantage, had a 75 meter turn with a 75 meter straight. This configuration was alien to both of them, but nothing could be changed now.
As the sprinters warmed up, broadcasters showed myriad dramatic footage of their respective records set at the previous years olympics. Highlights of their performances were shown on the screens in the stadium. Finally, at the appointed hour, the crowd was silenced, and the men settled into their blocks. The starters gun went up, the racers tensed, and the gun fired.
Well, at least there were no false starts. Bailey beat Johnson out the blocks with a .171 second reaction time to Johnson's .189. Despite this, Johnson had a stronger start overall. At 25 meters, Johnson was approximately 2.33 meters ahead of Bailey. However, Bailey had passed Johnson by 50 meters. By 75 meters--the end of the curve--Bailey begins to increase his lead as Johnson stumbles on his left leg. When Johnson reached 100 meters, he finally dropped out of the race entirely, claiming an injured hamstring. Here's a breakdown of the race by times:
Bailey | Johnson
Reaction time | .171| .189
50 Meters | 5.74 | 5.83
100 Meters | 10.24 | 10.63
150 Meters | 14.99 | DNF
Thus, Bailey was the winner of "The World's Fastest Man" title. But it didn't really prove anything because Johnson wasn't able to give a full effort. But, at least now we have a standard for the 150 meter dash. Track and Field's biggest dry hump of all time was finally over.
Big surprise here: They are both still referred to as The World's Fastest Man - at least at one point in time. Bailey's 100 meter record has been broken by Maurice Green (9.79 seconds) and Tim Montgomery (9.78 seconds), both of the United States. His 50 meter indoor, as well as Johnson's 200m record, is still intact. Also, Johnson went on to break the 400 meter dash world record as well.
So who is the world's fastest man?
Since the debacle that was the WFM showdown, accurate means of recording 10 meter splits have been used at major events. At the 1997 World Championships in Athens, Greece, Maurice Green beat Donovan Bailey with a wind-aided 9.86 seconds for 100 meters. In this race, Green reached a top speed of 11.8 m/s, far greater than Johnson's possible top speed of 10.99 m/s. Since Green was topped by Montgomery in 2002, Tim Montgomery is now referred to as The World's Fastest Man. *
At the time of this writing, the fastest 100 meter dash ever run was by Montgomery. However, if you allow wind-aided times, Carl Lewis once ran a 9.78s 100 meter as well, and Obadele Thompson ran a 9.69(!).
Of course, once you take cyclists into account, Sam Whittingham is the winner, setting the world record at a speed of 81.00 mph (31.21024 m/s) on the Varna Diablo II.
The World's Fastest Man is a silly title that marketers and advertisers would have you believe is important. The 150 meter race was an embarrassment to track and field, and was about as groundbreaking as tennis's Battle of the Sexes.
People can travel much faster when they are on bicycles.
*Of course, other people, such as Ben Johnson, have run faster** times in the 100 meter dash, but they were found to have used performance-enhancing substances, which are banned from use by the IAAF and the International Olympic Committee. Substance-aided performances have not been included in this w/u for just this reason. Thanks to rp for pointing this out
**Ben Johnson's "world record" time at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 was a 9.79, which is slower than Tim Montgomery's world record. However, with Montgomery's currently questionable eligibility status, this time is in question as well. Thanks to Altitude for pointing this out, as well as the nasty wind-aided times by Lewis and Thompson, and correcting the wind-aided time of Maurice Greene.
Watching the race on TV when I was high school