July 28, 2021 | David F. Coppedge

Olympic Animals Take the Gold

It’s a good thing we don’t have to compete against animals
for strength, speed, swimming and other Olympic events


Every Olympic season, some science reporters like to compare human abilities with those of animals (3 July 2012, 1 Aug 2012). This time, Caitlyn Forster and Eliza Middleton continued the tradition in their piece for The Conversation, “How do Olympic athletes stack up against invertebrates? Not very well.

To make the case, they have to adjust for size, of course. An ant is not going to snatch, clean and jerk 220 kilograms like a man. But pound for pound, some invertebrate animals would be hard to beat. Here are the records from the article:

  • Weightlifting: some ants can lift 3,000 times their body weight.
  • Swimming: the whirligig beetle can move 44.5 body lengths per second.
  • Running: a tiny mite can move 322 body lengths per second, “the equivalent of Bolt running at 2,090km per hour.”
  • High jump: fleas can jump 150 times their height. That would be like a human jumping over the Eiffel Tower.

Olympic weightlifting (DFC)

Some of these superhuman feats of tiny arthropods, the authors know, are due to the effects of scale. One cannot “blow up” a flea to the size of a man and expect it to jump the Eiffel Tower, because its mass would increase much faster than its muscle speed and force.

The formidable strength of ants and other small critters is largely due to the physics of scale. Smaller animals have a higher proportion of muscle than larger animals. Their small bodies present only a small load for the muscles to move, freeing up strength to move much heavier objects.

Larger animals have much more volume and mass, meaning their muscles must be much stronger to maintain the same level of strength relative to body weight. If you scaled an insect up to human size, it would be stronger than a human – but it would also be so heavy it would be unable to hold itself up!

Some of the comparisons are dubious, too. If a male runner had six legs like an ant, he would probably sprint much faster. These comparisons are fun to think about but do not diminish the great achievements of human athletes. Forster and Middleton end,

While we won’t see an invertebrate on the podium anytime soon, and a human could never run as fast as a mite, our Olympians are incredible examples of the extremes our bodies can achieve. We look forward to watching the amazing feats of humans at Tokyo.

More About Running Speed

A press release from the University of Cologne says, “Animals are better sprinters.

An interdisciplinary group of scientists from the universities of Cologne, Koblenz, Tübingen, and Stuttgart has studied the characteristics determining the maximum running speed in animals. The model they developed explains why humans cannot keep up with the fastest sprinters in the animal kingdom. Based on these calculations, the giant spider Shelob from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ would have reached a maximum speed of 60 km/h. [37.3 mph]

This comparison again needs to be evaluated in terms of scale. The giant spider in the movie would have had too much mass to go as many body lengths per second as a smaller spider could. Some animals, though, are not far off the scale of humans and run faster. Why?

Cheetah (Illustra Media)

Many four-legged mammals can reach considerably higher running speeds than two-legged humans. Animals perfectly adapted to sprinting, such as cheetahs or antelopes, are characterized by a slender body shape, long legs, and a particularly mobile spine to achieve very high speeds when running. An interdisciplinary team including researchers at the University of Cologne’s Institute of Zoology has now developed a model that takes these characteristics into account and can calculate the maximum running speeds for animals of any size. The results of their research have been published in the article ‘Rules of nature’s Formula Run: Muscle mechanics during late stance is the key to explaining maximum running speed’ in the Journal of Theoretical Biology.

The six scientists published their model in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, Volume 523, 21 August 2021, 110714.

The top sprinting speed for a human is about 45 km/h. Cheetahs can run over twice that fast (100 km/h), but even antelopes (90 km/h) and warthogs (60 km/h) would win medals over humans. Eat your heart out, Usain Bolt: Olympic record sprinting speed “is only roughly equivalent to the top speed of a domestic cat.” Yeah, but a cat has four legs.

The model actually awards human performance: “the model shows that top sprinters in sports are already very close to their speed optimum.

We humans may not have the maximum traits to be found in animals, but we have optimum traits for our needs, in the optimum combination to fulfill our purpose. And where we fall behind some animals, we can excel them with our brains. We cannot fly like the birds, but we can build airplanes, hang gliders, wingsuits, jet packs and ultralights. We cannot run as fast as a cheetah or antelope, but we can build race cars, motorcycles, and bicycles. We cannot lift as comparatively much as an ant or elephant, but we can build forklifts, cranes and helicopters. We cannot jump as fast, but we can build rockets to the moon.

God did not create humans to be mere animals with physical traits. He made us to be His image-bearers, showing forth His excellencies by reflecting His love, holiness and justice in the world. Sadly, we failed miserably when our first ancestors chose to disobey and believe Satan’s lie and take him as their lord – but that fateful decision brought death and evil. God provided a way out of Satan’s totalitarian dictatorship through the death and resurrection of the Son, Jesus Christ. Now, we can return to our true Lord—our Creator—. We escape Satan’s regime by faith alone in Christ alone. Let us run to our Redeemer. Let us jump to His forgiveness. And let those who have done so bear one another’s burdens to show forth His grave, mercy and love.





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