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Speed is the fundamental component in sports, and also the most complex. It is easily seen and appreciated but just as easily taken for granted or overlooked. But it is always present. Speed is what manifestly separates Usain Bolt from all other human beings and makes him the most visually arresting athlete on earth. But it is also, in a very different form, what separates Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers from other NFL quarterbacks. Theirs is a speed of thought and reaction. Each form is essential.
However it is defined, speed enables greatness, and it can be measured in far more compelling ways than by a stopwatch: by the dirt that flew from beneath Jesse Owens's spikes at the 1936 Olympics or by the sweat that danced in the air after one of Muhammad Ali's jabs flicked an opponent's chin. It is the extra foot on Nolan Ryan's fastball, the uncanny timing of Wayne Gretzky's passes (an instant faster than defenders anticipated), the hapless defenders sprawled in the wake of a maniacally slaloming Lionel Messi or that moment when Michael Jordan froze with the basketball in mid-dribble and then exploded to the hoop.
There are as many types of speed as there are games and players. At times it can seem obvious. In football a wide receiver uses raw speed to blow past a defensive back and into open grass in the same way that an edge pass rusher motors around a backpedaling offensive lineman and hurries the quarterback. A baseball player steals second base and then third, or a point guard covers the distance between foul lines in four dribbles before delivering a lob at the rim to a teammate rushing up the wing. A race car screams around a huge, paved oval, and a skier does likewise down the face of an icy mountainside.
Speed like Bolt's—or like that of his fellow Olympic megastar, U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps—would seem most apparent. Line up and take off; first to the finish wins. Simple. Yet when Bolt was beaten by younger countryman Yohan Blake in both the 100- and the 200-meter races at the Jamaican Olympic Trials in Kingston, thus calling into question Bolt's ability to win both events at the London Games, a flurry of analysis suggested that Bolt was not only injured but also sloppy in his execution. That he had become, in the backstage parlance of the sport, like a man running after a bus. The Bolt who indeed won gold medals in London was tight and efficient, underscoring the reality that his speed, though formed in large part by his DNA, needed a healthy assist from technical excellence and training. And Bolt's type of speed is largely nontransferable. Put a ball in his hands or at his feet, and he will suddenly look normal, possibly even awkward. It is axiomatic among football coaches that nothing turns a 4.4 sprinter into a 4.7 sprinter faster than a helmet and a playbook.
Across the spectrum of sports, speed is seldom as obvious as Bolt's. Often it hides, disguised as something less apparent to the naked eye. Golf balls are launched with the highest possible clubhead speed. There is the lateral quickness a defender needs to beat his man to the baseline; a base stealer's jump, blending risk, timing and instant acceleration. The modern football game of no-huddle offenses is in truth a mind battle that will be won by the players who can more quickly make correct decisions. Offensive linemen must decide which defender to block and receivers must decide when to break off pass routes, all within seconds. Call this brain speed, the ability to think faster and more efficiently than an opponent, and thus to act more decisively at the proper time.
The goal of an athlete's training and preparation is to find speed. At this moment, on a field somewhere, a coach is trying to make a young soccer player one tick faster on his through ball. In a meeting room a coach and quarterback are dissecting video of an opponent, to better understand what will happen before it happens. On some asphalt court, a kid dribbles ever faster, pushing his own envelope. A mechanic is tinkering in his garage, trying to get more speed. A golfer is trying to find the perfect zone to swing just a little harder. Because through all the complexities of sport, faster is better.
Across the spectrum of sports, speed is seldom obvious. Often it hides, disguised as something less apparent to the naked eye.
KIM KLEMENT/US PRESSWIRE
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
ICONS BY THOMAS FUCHS
DAVID E. KLUTHO (JORDAN)
FAST COMPANY Ryan (far right) drew on pure velocity, while Jordan, Messi and Gretzky have embodied speed in its more nuanced expressions.
ENRIQUE MARCARIAN/REUTERS (MESSI)
[See caption above]
BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES (GRETZKY)
[See caption above]
RICHARD MACKSON (RYAN)
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