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A Visual Guide to How Terribly the World’s Best Human Athletes Fare Versus Most Average Animals

Usain Bolt might be the fastest man alive, but an average warthog could probably take him.

(Graphics by Michelle Enemark)

Yesterday, Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man, made an appropriately confident prediction. “I’m going to win the 100 meters,” he told CNN. Then, he tripled-down: “I’ll win all three gold medals,” he said, betting on himself in the 100, the 200, and the 4x100 relay.

With that settled, Bolt likely has his mind on something greater. Over the course of this weekend’s track and field events, he may be trying to best his own 100 meter world record time—9.58 seconds, achieved at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. At the height of this performance, he managed to move at a blistering 27.8 miles per hour, in all likelihood the fastest a person has ever run

But the world’s most extraordinary human runner would not beat, say, an ordinary warthog. A warthog can run around 30 miles per hour on an average day—no training, no audience, no special wind conditions. Housecats also regularly reach this speed, as do grizzly bears, rabbits, and white-tailed deer. The roadrunner can run 25 mph even though it can also fly. A certain class of butterflies, called skippers, can get up to 37.

The Olympics may have us all misty-eyed at the heights (and lengths, and speeds, and depths) of human achievement. But if we were ever to open the stadium gates to the whole animal kingdom, we’d quickly be put back in our place. I’m not even talking about those fancy calculated situations that try to make things physiologically fair, and thus prove that a human-sized ant could pick up a semi-truck with one leg, or that a human-sized flea could jump Big Ben.

Animals don’t even need that. At their own sizes, with no trickery, tons of them can trounce us.

Emperor penguins, total dunces on land, swim nearly as fast as our speediest-ever swimmer, Eamon Sullivan of Australia. (Gentoo penguins, the fastest penguin, obliterate him, reaching a cool 22.3 mph). Water striders aren’t far behind, clocking in at a solid 3.3 mph despite being about 1/1000th of our size. And if you want to make some convoluted argument about small size being an advantage, consider the gray whale, blowing past our record with an average speed of 5 mph.

The story is the same with pretty much all feats. Munk’s devil rays can jump higher straight out of the water than we can backwards, with a running start, on land. Otters nearly outdive us, and look cuter doing it. And although we’ve steered clear of some of the more complex events, rest assured that if you wanted to go double or nothing with a skipper butterfly, and you could convince it to pick up a tiny tennis racket, it might defeat you there, as well, thanks to its insanely quick reflexes. (If it helps, the one thing we seem to be half-decent at is long jumping—our company there is largely mammalian, and pretty esteemed.)

Here, to dampen the rampant speciesism of these Olympian weeks, is a graphic chart of how the best humanity has to offer stacks up against other animals’ average Joes. Keep it next to when you flip on the television, and it’ll give you new, creative things to yell. 

Naturecultures is a weekly column that explores the changing relationships between humanity and wilder things. Have something you want covered (or uncovered)? Send tips to [email protected].