Could a human run the 200m in under 19 seconds?

Yes, Usain Bolt already has/had the capability and the speed to do it under perfect conditions … But on a straight 200m track. I don’t think that he or anyone else competing right now can do it on a normal running track.

Let’s try to find out what the best possible 200m time would be under perfect conditions.  

The big limiting factor is the fact that more than 50% of the 200m event is run on a curve where top athletes have great difficulty achieving their top speed.

A standard IAAF (Olympic) track with 8 or 9 lanes has two 84.39 m straights and two 115.61 m long curves for a total length of 400m.

Lane 1 has a radius of 36.5 m and lane 9 has a radius of 46.3 m which means that athletes generally prefer to run on the outside lanes where the curve is not that tight and they use up less energy battling rotational forces. The optimal running lanes are always the outer ones, but meet and championship organizers want to place the best athletes in the middle lanes. The convention is that they are always assigned to lanes 3, 4, 5, 6 on an 8 lane track and lanes 4, 5, 6, 7 on a 9 lane track.

In 2009 at the Berlin World Championships in Athletics Usain Bolt ran his 200m world record of 19.19 seconds. He was running in lane 5 and it was a standard configuration track, so the radius of his curve was about 41.4 m.

In 2011 Yohan Blake shocked the sprinting world by running 19.26 at a Diamond League meeting in Brussels. His – in sprinting terms – very poor reaction time of 0.269 seconds means that his run was actually the fastest in history. Bolt had a great reaction time of 0.133 in his world record run and most sprinters are expected to go at least under 0.180. With those sort of reaction times out of the blocks, Blake would have run anywhere between 19.13-19.17. This amazing run – coupled with his two victories over Bolt in both the 100m and 200m at the Jamaican Olympic Trials – made Blake a big favourite for both short sprint titles at the 2012 London Olympics.

But some of us had different thoughts and ideas. 

Let’s go back to Brussels. The thing about their track is that it actually doesn’t have a standard configuration. Its straights/curves are 75m/125m long, not the standard 84m/116m. It’s also known to be one of the widest tracks on the circuit. And while I couldn’t find any official information on the width of its lanes, it’s without a doubt wider than the standard of 1.22 m.

Blake was running in lane 6, so the bare minimum radius of his curve was a whopping 46m (calculating with the standard lane width in mind) and it was probably close to 50m due to the extreme width of the track. This allowed Blake to run a far more relaxed bend and have a storming finish. He covered the last 100m in 9.12 which is even faster than Johnson’s unheard of 9.20 on a standard track in Atlanta 1996 when he ran 19.32. Bolt ran “only” 9.27, but he was tying up towards the end because of his amazing and enormously exhausting 9.92 second first 100 meters. He remains the only man to run the bend in under 10 seconds.

“This bend is unbelievable. No one has ever run a bend like this, ever, and probably never ever will.” – Michael Johnson commentating on Usain Bolt’s 19.19.

Blake was also running with a +0.7 m/s tailwind while Bolt had a -0.3 m/s headwind. The maximum allowable tailwind is 2.0 m/s and the convention is that a 1 m/s tailwind gives an advantage of 0.05 seconds.

[Example: In 1996 the 100m record stood at 9.83 seconds and then Obadele Thompson managed to run a crazy fast time of 9.69 s … with a 5.0 m/s tailwind. In still conditions his time adjusts to about 9.94 s (his lifetime PB is 9.87 from 1998).]

So how do Bolt’s and Blake’s runs ultimately compare?

Well, with Bolt’s reaction time, Blake would have run 19.13 and with zero wind it would have been about 19.17. Bolt’s adjusted zero wind time is exactly the same! But Bolt’s handicap was that he had to battle a much tighter bend. And the taller that you are, the harder it is to run the bend at near top speed. Bolt is 1.95 m while Blake is 1.80 m.

So we can give Bolt a slight edge, but what about their other results?

Blake’s second best time is 19.44 (+0.4 m/s) from when he came second to Bolt at the 2012 Olympics on a standard track in London. Bolt, on the other hand, has 4 times which are faster than that and they were all achieved on standard tracks (19.19, 19.30, 19.32, 19.40).

So in Brussels Blake was 0.18 s faster than his second best time ran on a normal track. Walter Dix, the American that was behind Blake in Brussels, ran 19.53 – 0.16 s faster than his second best time of 19.69. That night in 2011 – in combination with a wide, fast track and good wind conditions – was clearly perfect for sprinting.

In short, on a standard track, Bolt has run 0.25 s faster than Blake.

With all of this taken into account I think we can safely conclude that Bolt remains the outstanding 200m runner. So what is or what was his ultimate potential in the event?            

He has numerously stated – at the start of practically every season for about four years now – that one of his biggest goals is to improve his 200m world record and run under 19 seconds. He recently reiterated this point by saying that he hopes he can do it this year at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Could he actually run under 19 seconds?

Barring something special happening in Rio, I think his best chance was in 2009. It was the year of his record-breaking performances, but a lesser known fact is that – apart from improving his 100m and 200m world records – it was also a year in which he ran an exhibition straight 150m race in Manchester and posted a WB* time of 14.35 (*world best; it’s not called a world record because it’s not an official IAAF event). It was a temporary track laid in the city centre and the race is a good predictor of what he was capable of in the 200m and/or in the straight 200m. In fact, I wish he’d run the 200m then and there.

Meet organizers probably had the same idea and one year later (2010) they organized a straight 200m. Bolt was not there, but Tyson Gay was, and he won in a blistering time of 19.41 (-0.4 m/s) which is 0.17 s faster than his official PB of 19.58 (+1.3 m/s) set on a standard track in 2009. If we wind-adjust both of those runs to 0.0 m/s we get times of 19.39 (straight 200m) and 19.65 (standard 200m) – a substantial difference of 0.26 s. The two runs are also just a year apart from one another, and in both of those years Gay was in the best form of his life, so it’s highly unlikely that he was in better shape when he ran the straight 200m race.

If we take Bolt’s 19.19 seconds, wind-adjust it to 19.17 and subtract 0.26, we get 18.90. If we give him a +2.0 m/s following wind, the time gets down to 18.80 seconds!

It’s probably not something that we should realistically expect though. A time of around 18.80 s is probably where the ultimate limit lies if an athlete ran the absolute perfect race, combining the best split times of every part of the race in history. Similar to how we get 9.48 seconds in the 100m if we add up all the current best 10m split times in history. Bolt holds 8 of them – from 20 to 100m – but that is probably a topic for another blog.

So someone running 9.48 in the 100m could realistically run somewhere around 18.96 (give or take) in the 200m. And we do get somewhere in the vicinity of that time if we combine Bolt’s first 100m of 9.92 and Blake’s second 100m of 9.12 for a combined total of 19.04.

All of this means that humans are probably already capable of running just under 19 seconds in the 200m on a standard track and with a favorable tail wind.

But I’ll go as far as to say that the person who will actually run under 19 seconds probably hasn’t been born yet.

I will repeat, however, that Usain Bolt already had the potential to do it on a straight track. Below is a sheet with some of the splits from Bolt’s and Gay’s races and from that a projection of what Bolt could maybe run if he put together a near-perfect race. The times highlighted in blue are his fastest split times from his straight 150m and 200m WR runs. The first split is taken from Berlin’s 200m race and the next two are taken from Manchester’s run. The final 50m split of 4.68 is a fairly realistic projection of what he’d run if if he’d slow down 0.23 seconds from his previous split between 100 and 150m (like he did in Berlin).

Click on the photo below to view a higher resolution.

Screenshot 2016-08-04 19.34.57

If we combine those fastest splits, we can calculate that Bolt could have run a straight 200m in a time of 18.99 seconds.

In conclusion, I think that a sub 19-second run is most likely out of reach even for Bolt, but I do believe that he can improve his world record if he runs a perfect race in Rio and finally gets a strong wind behind his back.