Tailwind Bars Sprinter From Claiming New Record

U.S. sprinter Tyson Gay ran the fastest-ever 100-meter sprint this weekend. But his 9.66 seconds won't go down as a world record because of tailwind. Dave Johnson, of the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame, discusses how a tailwind helps sprinters.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

So while Adam Nelson may have just squeaked in, other U.S. athletes have been setting records at the trials, including world records in swimming. In addition, one runner would have set the mark in the Marquis 100-meter sprint if not for the wind. Sprinter Tyson Gay had a strong breeze at his back when he ran the race in 9.68 seconds. How strong? About nine miles per hour.

Now they measure this stuff in meters per second, and in any race, when a tailwind is going faster than two meters a second - or about four-and-a-half miles an hour - official records cannot be set.

So we were wondering: How much does a tailwind help a runner? To help us with this and to dig into the history of weather-related track-and-field rules, we turn to Dave Johnson. He's with the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame, and he joins us now from Eugene, Oregon. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

Mr. DAVE JOHNSON (Head of Steering Committee, USA Track and Field Hall of Fame): Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: First up, how big of a difference does the wind make?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, the two meters per second will subtract roughly maybe a tenth to a tenth and a half, so about fifteen-hundredths of a second for a two-meter-per-second wind. So the 4.1-meter-per-second wind that Tyson Gay had would have resulted in a time with no wind of about 9.85, 9.86. Even without it, though, it was awfully fast.

NORRIS: Now a lot of numbers there. So when you're talking about an advantage, are you talking about a minimal advantage or a big advantage?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, in layman's terms, almost a minimal advantage. But when you're measuring something to one one-hundredth of a second, it's a major advantage.

NORRIS: So when did this rule first surface, and why?

Mr. JOHNSON: This rule came into being in 1936. Before that, the decision as to whether to approve a record application would have been made by the referee at the meet in question.

NORRIS: Tyson Gay does not get the world record. He was denied that, but he's still at the top of what they call the all-conditions category.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yes. In any 100 meters run anywhere in the world at any altitude and with any wind velocity, yes, it's the fastest any human being has ever run.

NORRIS: Does this strike you as fair?

Mr. JOHNSON: Certainly. Let's put it this way. The goal of the rules of the international federation are to standardize the sport to a certain level of tolerance. If you didn't have the rule, you could have people going to high-altitude with gales at their back. You'd be looking for the windiest day that you could find, and you might have people running a half-second faster. But that's not a condition you can replicate very easily, and so all of the records, then, would be merely a matter of atmospheric flukes rather than a measurement of human performance.

NORRIS: Tyson Gay was described as a blue blur on the field. Did you actually watch this race, and did you think that he had set the record?

Mr. JOHNSON: I knew he was running very fast, and we were checking streamers that were set up near the 50-meter mark, and it looked like it might very well be a wind-aided race. So I think for veteran observers, almost before you look at the clock, you're looking for the wind gauge. You know, you almost hate to see world record flashed up there and then turn to the wind gauge and say oh, well, rats. I thought I saw a world record. But, you know, that's just one person's way of looking at things.

NORRIS: Oh, well, rats. I have a feeling Tyson Gay may have uttered words similar to that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: I would imagine so, yes. But on the other hand, without that extra two meters per second, we wouldn't have seen the 9.68, either.

NORRIS: Dave Johnson, good to talk to you. Thanks so much, sir.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you.

NORRIS: Dave Johnson is the head of the steering committee for the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame.

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