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5 Numerical Fun Facts About the Olympics

How fast do Olympic swimmers swim and Olympic sprinters sprint? How do these speeds compare to the speed at which you could race walk to the games? Or fly there in an airplane? Keep on reading to find out.

By
Jason Marshall, PhD
Episode #286

Another four years have passed, which means it's once again time for millions of people to gather around computers, phones, and televisions to cheer on their favorite candidate running to win one of the greatest races on Earth. No, I'm not taking about the US presidential election; I am, of course, talking about the Olympic Games kicking off this week in Brazil.

Being a numerically minded dude, I love to ponder the quantitative angles of the games. Many of the events in the Olympics are all about speed, which got me wondering: How fast do Olympic race walkers walk, Olympic sprinters sprint, and Olympic swimmers swim? And how do these speeds compare to those of non-human things like cars and planes?

It's time for a quintet of numerical fun facts about Olympic speeds.

Fun Fact 1: How Fast Do Olympic Race Walkers Walk?

In my opinion, the most underrated Olympic sport is race walking. If you've never seen this event, do yourself a favor and check it out. As its name implies, race walking is a race in which you walk. Although, as you'll see, this version of "walking" bears little resemblance to a typical amble, mosey, stroll, or even shuffle. The big rule in race walking—and the reason it's classified as "walking"—is that one foot must always be (at least fleetingly) in contact with the ground.

World class race walkers "walk" 6 minute miles!

It's amazing just how quickly a human can locomote with this restriction. Which leads us to today's first speed-related numerical fun fact. The world record race walk time was set by Yusuke Suzuki during a 20 km race in 2015. Suzuki finished the race in 1 hr 16 min 36 sec. If you do the math (remembering that speed is simply distance divided by time), you'll see that Suzuki walked those 20 km at an average speed of about 15.7 km per hour or 9.7 miles per hour.

To put this in perspective, one lap around a typical running track in the US is 1/4 mile, which means that the 20 km or 12.4 mile race walk is approximately 50 laps around a track. So to set the race walking world record, you need to complete each of these 50 laps in an average time of around 90 seconds. Which means that world class race walkers "walk" 6 minute miles! That's an impressive time if you're running, and it's a downright amazing time for the athletes "walking" in the Olympics!

Fun Fact 2: How Fast Do Olympic Swimmers Swim?

If you've ever been swimming, you know that water is kind of hard to move through. The physics of it is fairly simple: Water is more dense than air and therefore offers up more resistance to motion. Which might lead you to correctly conclude that the fastest swimmers must be slower than the fastest runners. But what about the fastest walkers that we just talked about? Are race walkers faster or slower than swimmers?