Speed Counts



(Reproduced with permission)

It would he difficult, if not impossible, to find any sport in which speed plays an unimportant part. More speed injected into any team game gives not only a higher standard of play but also a change in the whole character of the game.

BOB HAYES: Copyright: The Australian Newspaper
BOB HAYES, the American gold medallist for the 100 metres at the Tokyo Olympics who is regarded as the fastest man in the world. Speed is his basic characteristic. Copyright: The Australian Newspaper

Greater speed opens greater possibilities to develop new techniques and tactical moves. This trend has been experienced already in some continental Soccer, in tennis and basketball. Even in distance running, where stamina and endurance are so essential, speed is one of the major limiting factors to further improvement and record-breaking. The other vital limiting factor is the heart, which must be capable of pumping huge volumes of oxygen-carrying blood through the working muscles.


Few of the enthusiasts, who readily envisage and forecast the three-minute mile realise that such a feat will be utterly impossible until sprinters can run the 100 yards in near enough to six seconds. With the exception of the endurance events, such as distance running, swimming, cycling, or rowing, lack of stamina is no great handicap, nor will it stop a person becoming an outstanding athlete. This, however, is not the case when it comes to speed, for speed is such a fundamental quality in the make-up of the athlete that it is inconceivable to think of his ever becoming a champion in any field of sport without it.

Speed, in fact, is the one single basic characteristic by which one can recognise the great athlete. In track and field athletics, the importance of speed cannot be overrated. There is not a single event which can be performed slowly with success. The stop-watch and the tape measure make sure of that.

It is extraordinary that it took us so long to recognise and appreciate fully the relative significance of speed in sport. Before the war, it was common practice to encourage second-rate sprinters to take up events like hurdling, vaulting, jumping or throwing for which, it was felt, that great skill was required rather than great speed. Even to this very day, we have not shed this habit.

Tennis is another game where some experts maintain that really great skill is more important than speed, forgetting completely that in a tough contest everything is important, and that skill also improves with the increase in speed.

When we approach the problem of speed, things become difficult, complicated and confused. For a start, many of us are muddled about what we mean by speed. Some say that speed is simply the time it takes a sprinter to the run the 100 yards.

Others say that speed is the sudden burst the athlete achieves over five or 10 yards, or the rapid acceleration shown by a runner coming off the starting blocks. Field games athletes maintain that speed of limb — throwing arm for example — is real speed.

A javelin thrower delivers the missile at a speed of nearly 80 mph,and some baseball pitchers and fast bowlers deliver the ball at a still greater velocity.


Physiologists tell us that “pure speed” is the speed of contraction of a single muscle fibre taken in isolation—that is, the speed with which a muscle fibre contracts to a given stimulus without any resistance.

This speed, they maintain, is inborn and cannot be altered by training.

This fact has been taken by most coaches  and athletes to mean that  a sprinter is born and not made, that training can play only a minor part in improving speed, and that the limit of improvement is very narrow.

Recently, however, a number of physiologists, especially in the Soviet Union and America have come forward with the idea that “pure speed” can be improved by environmental factors, such as training.

Oliver Jackson, the coach of the American 1956 Olympic 100 metres gold medallist, Bobby Morrow, expressed the general opinion of most American coaches when he said: “Regardless of what some of our professors think, I still believe that speed is inherited.

“Sure, you can improve anyone’s speed by work and teaching him better  form, but his actual speed was there before you ever worked on him.

“I think this fact is proved in that practically all of your great sprinters have been men who had good times recorded while still in high school.”


At the age of 19 years, in 1933, while still at high school. the fabulous American sprinter, Jesse Owens, ran the 100 yards in 9.4 sec and the 220 yards in 20.7 sec. During his university career he improved his 220 yards to  20.3 sec, but remained steady at 9.4 sec for the 100 yards.

The Jamaican, Michael Agostini, at the age of 12 years, ran the 100 yards in 11.6 sec and improved to 9.4 sec at the age of 18. Both these sprinters, in later years as senior competitors, did not improve on their 100 yards times without wind assistance.

Bobby Morrow ran the 100 yards in 10.4 sec when only 13 years old, and at 18, ran 9.6 sec.

The fact that sprinters improve so little by training can be interpreted in  two ways. Firstly, training, while improving the runner’s speed, has far less effect on the sprinter than on other athletes who train for skill and stamina. This is basically the view of most  American coaches who have “produced” the best sprinters in the world.

Secondly,  training of sprinters has altered very little in the past 35 years, whereas the training methods in all other events have improved enormously.

In 1890, the American, John Owen, became the the first amateur to run the 100 yards in 9.8 sec, and Frank Wykoff ran 9.4 sec for the 100 yards in 1930. At this time, the mile world record still stood at 4 min 10.4 sec set by the by Fin, Paavo Nurmi.


The uncertainty as to whether speed is an inherited quality or not should not stop one from re-examining the whole problem of speed without bias.

After all, what does it  matter to the athlete whether physical characteristics are the result of inheritance or not.

The important point is: What can we do with what we have got, and how can we improve?

When we run, jump or throw, we always work against resistance — the resistance of the weight of our limbs, our whole body or the added weight of an implement like the javelin, shot or discus.

Pure speed, on the other  hand, is muscle speed without resistance. To implement speed against resistance strength is necessary.

The greater the muscular strength, the easier  will it be for the muscles to overcome resistance and the closer will the speed of movement resemble pure speed.


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