The need for speed – and why it’s still the most precious commodity in sport

There is nothing so intoxicating in sport as speed. Wingers thrill you with it, you win Wimbledon with it and the world will stop for it in August when the “fastest on earth” is crowned at the Paris Olympics. Jim Tucker reports.

May 10, 2024, updated May 10, 2024
Usain Bolt (Pic, Tokyo

Usain Bolt (Pic, Tokyo

Speed thrills. Of all the things that have changed in sport, this tantalising, edge-of-the-seat guarantee never has.

Old cotton footy jerseys with real collars have turned into tight second skins that no prop should ever wear. Tech devices track work rate so there’s no “bludging on the blindside” as Roy Slaven will lament.

Fewer and fewer can remember when coloured clothing wasn’t part of cricket. Helmet Cam and Hawk-Eye, replacing linespeople in tennis, are no longer innovations but the standard.

Cut through all those modern trappings and something that no coach can coach is an age-old and intoxicating currency to hook fans.

Speed is like gold in a crisis. It never loses value.

Just take a snapshot from fast feet in footy to fast hands in boxing or the fast bowler who freezes footwork because of the pace he uncoils.

The Dolphins are winning well in the NRL but how much better will they be when quicksilver fullback Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow returns from injury.

When he was scoring his hat-trick of tries against St George earlier in the season, it reminded you of Wayne Bennett’s recruitment plan for the fledgling club.

Sign tough forwards, sure, but sign me speed. When you are done with that, sign me more speed.

Likewise, across at the Queensland Reds. Australia’s most watchable team in Super Rugby Pacific are just that because of the fresh pace on the edges to go with their smart team patterns and forward clout.

Few have burst onto the scene as suddenly as flying winger Tim Ryan, a kid from St Patrick’s College, Shorncliffe, who is running in tries from halfway for fun. He has five tries in his first two games as a starter.

Fans love a speedster.

You still have to strike the right balance. At the Brisbane Broncos, fullback Reece Walsh is playing his footy like he’s double-parked right now.

There’s an impatience to use his skilful speed now rather than wait to better pick his moments.

He’s not in the sort of place that 1968 Olympic 100m gold medallist Jim Hines found himself.

The first man to break 10 seconds for the 100m was a prized catch for the NFL, or so they hoped. He was drafted by the Maimi Dolphins the same year as his gold medal heroics at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

The American also played briefly for the Kansas City Chiefs without success. He was unkindly referred to as the man with the nine-second feet but the two-minute hands.

Track sprinter-footballers have been far more successful in Australia. Think Ken Irvine and Michael Cleary. Even celebrated 1956 Olympic 100m bronze medallist Hec Hogan was a flyer in lower grade rugby for the Brothers club.

Boxer Tim Tszyu’s most recent fight might have been all about continuing with blood streaming down his face from a cut but there’s a reason we were watching in the first place.

The super welterweight’s speed of hand is mesmerising just like his father Kostya Tszyu’s punching prowess once was.

The late Muhammad Ali had dancing feet and fast combinations in the complete package that dominated heavyweight boxing in a golden era.

Of course, the silver-tongued Ali had a quote about speed.

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“I’m so fast I could hit you before God gets the news,” Ali once quipped.

More famously, he reworked an old line: “I’m so fast I hit the light switch in my room and jump into bed before my room goes dark.”

Wait for Wimbledon on the grass and so much is decided by the speed and craft of the serve. It makes the tournament like no other when the red clay of Paris for the French Open dilutes serving speed as a primary factor.

The flying feet of young Queensland sprinter Torrie Lewis have carried an Australian 4 x 100m relay team to their fastest time ever in The Bahamas.

“Australia’s fastest woman” is a moniker that is getting us all excited. The 19-year-old is only at the start of her athletic career but that speed has got casual track fans and the media more and more interested in her.

What would cricket chatter be without the question “Who’s the fastest bowler you’ve ever seen?”

At 73, it still makes Jeff Thomson a magnetic figure apart from his hilarious retelling of cricket tales, conflicts and the batsmen he felt were wetting themselves when first facing him in the 1970s.

“Thommo” once stopped the speed gun at 160.6km per hour with one delivery in Perth in the mid-’70s. There’s a generation of batsmen who are unbudging that “Thommo” tops all other contenders as “fastest ever.”
The famed slingshot speedster’s deliveries were fast and nasty. That story about him bowling a short ball at Perth’s WACA and it taking just once bounce before reaching the fence when it sailed over the ‘keeper’s head is true. It’s not a fairytale.

Others will throw up Pakistan’s Shoaib Akhtar, Shaun Tait or Brett Lee as the fastest of all-time. No one can throw up a scarier pace battery than the renowned West Indian attack of the 1970s or ‘80s when Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, Colin Croft, Wayne Daniel and Andy Roberts were in their pomp.

Those spells of raw pace from England’s Jofra Archer against the Australians during the 2019 Ashes series in England were must-watch.

The speed recording devices have been so varied. The mystique is always there on “the fastest ever” because the debate is still subjective because of that.

There was nothing subjective about Usain Bolt on the track. The most precise timing equipment in sport told the story. He owned the Olympic 100m and his world record of 9.58 sec has been untouched since 2009.

There are more than 300 medal events at the Paris Olympics. For a blink under 10 sec, the world will be captivated by the men’s 100m final in August. They will be captivated by the crown…the fastest on earth.
Jim Tucker has specialised in sport, the wider impacts and features for most of his 40 years writing in the media. He loved the speed of Roscoe Tanner’s left-handed serve and will always back Jeff Thomson as cricket’s fastest-ever bowler.

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