[Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared on The Athletic in July 2021]
Back in 2014, when Gareth Bale was in his first season at Real Madrid and in his speedy pomp, a statistic did the rounds. Someone, somewhere had clocked Bale as running at 26.8mph when he scored that famous goal against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final, which was apparently quicker than Usain Bolt managed when he set the 100 metres world record in 2009.
It didn’t necessarily matter that it was a brilliant enough goal as it was, without garnishing it with ropey numbers. It didn’t necessarily matter that the speed attributed to Bale was his top speed, and the one attributed to Bolt was his average speed over 100 metres. It didn’t necessarily matter that if someone had thought about the suggestion for a second, that Gareth Bale was faster than Usain Bolt, they might have realised it was a little silly.
This cropped up again this week, when the Premier League announced that Tottenham defender Micky van de Ven completed the quickest sprint ever recorded (well, since 2021 when they started to record these things) in their game against Brentford in January. “To put his feat into context,” the Premier League website gushed, “Van de Ven’s blistering pace against Brentford was clocked at 10.38m per second, or 23.23 miles per hour. When sprint star Usain Bolt set the current 100m world record in 2009, his average speed was 10.44m per second, or 23.35mph (37.58 km/h).”
This was retweet fodder, a harmless throwaway line. But you can imagine how irritating it must have been for professional athletes, to have their careers and dedication and essentially their life’s work — without wishing to be dramatic about this — belittled in the name of content.
— Richard Kilty (@RKilty1) April 14, 2015
“Most logical people with common sense know it’s not the same,” says Kelly Sotherton, winner of three Olympic bronze medals in the heptathlon and the 4×400 metre relay. “Undoubtedly, there are some very fast team sport players, but they’re nowhere near the same or as fast as Usain Bolt. Those stats infuriate track and field athletes. In the same way, I suppose, if we were to pick up a football and brag about our skills, it would infuriate the football fraternity.”
Jason Gardener, a gold medal winner at the 2004 Olympics in the 4x100m relay, about which he co-authored a book called Our Race, agrees: “It’s what you may refer to as ‘lazy journalism’. It’s just a throwaway kind of comment. When these players record those kinds of speeds, they are amazing for a football player, but they don’t compare [to track athletes].”
This was of course not an isolated incident. You will have heard at various points about mythical 100-metre times attributed to players like Theo Walcott, or projected times based on a short sprint. Every time statistics such as this do the rounds, you can almost hear the collective eye-rolling from the athletics community, the implication that you could drop a footballer into the Olympic 100 metres final and they would be within a decent chance of a medal.
“I reckon some of them would struggle to break eleven seconds,” says Sotherton, when asked to estimate how an exceptionally fast footballer, like Kylian Mbappe or Erling Haaland, or Alphonso Davies, would get on if they were dropped in to face the world’s elite sprinters in an actual race. That’s not a bad time at all – indeed, 11 seconds would be enough to win a 100 metres gold medal. In 1900.
For a present-day comparison, the quickest 100m time clocked by a male sprinter in 2023 was the 9.83 British record by Zharnel Hughes at a meeting in New York, so if Sotherton is right, that would probably leave the footballer between 15-20 metres behind. Not in the frame, basically. If you can picture that, you start to realise the different skill sets at play.
“I think they’d probably be pretty good to 30, 40 metres,” says Sotherton, “but the difference is the sprinters can maintain and gain and get quicker and quicker and maintain the speed for longer than the footballers would be able to. So you’d see the gap start to open from 50 metres out. That’s where you see the difference. Dina Asher-Smith could probably beat the world’s fastest footballers over 100 metres.”
Micky van de Ven is the fastest player in the Premier League this season! ⚡️
Any surprises in this list? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/aC7Q0uocMx
— Amazon Prime Video Sport (@primevideosport) February 8, 2024
Bolt’s top speed, clocked between the 60 and 80-metre mark of his world record run at the 2009 World Championships, was 44.72kph. Still significantly faster than the Premier League’s elite in the graphic above.
Jonas Dodoo, a sprint coach who has worked with Arsenal, Leicester, the FA and the WSL adds a little more context: “If you can run over 10.5, even 10.2 metres per second, you’re in the top percentage of male football players, whereas that’s the same number that we would use for elite female sprinters.”
All of this, it should be said, is not a criticism of footballers. It’s not their job to be as fast as Usain Bolt, or Zharnel Hughes, or any specialist Olympic sprinters, because their skill set is so different. Athletes sprint once, over 100 metres, then they can have a rest. Footballers sprint many, many times a game, and very rarely for longer than around 30 metres, and if they’re lucky they will get a light jog as a breather before they have to do it again.
“The performance needs are very different,” says Gardener. “A football player needs to reach those speeds really quickly, over 10, 20, 30 metres, probably. Their training system is going to be very different because a sprinter is going in a straight line all at one speed, whereas footballers have to have the agility to move, sidestep, turn and go. Then they may need to repeat that speed. That’s the key thing to remember: repeated high-speed sprints.”
Then there’s lateral movement and, as basic as it sounds, stopping — stopping frequently, suddenly, and to a complete halt without tearing or snapping something. Tony Clarke is a sprint coach who has worked with Phil Foden and Conor Coady, among others: “Footballers will have to sprint 10 yards then totally decelerate, stop and then turn the other way. 100-metre runners don’t have that.” The skill and flexibility required to do that is obviously a completely different discipline, and will naturally detract from the power that a 100-metre runner can concentrate on.
An illustration of this came a few years ago when Cristiano Ronaldo raced against a professional sprinter and Olympian, Angel David Rodriguez. There were two races: one in a straight line, over 30 metres, another zig-zag over the same distance. Rodriguez won the former by 0.3 seconds, Ronaldo won the latter by just under half a second.
This tallies with something Clarke mentions: “If I was sprinting in a straight line for 10 yards and had to stop and then just go totally left, I’ve got to use one foot to push off and I could be putting five times my bodyweight on that foot. Therefore I’ve got to look at the amount of load going through my quadriceps, my glutes, hamstrings. A footballer will need to work on different muscle groups using plyometric exercises [drills that use a lot of force to build up muscles – so lots of jumps, squats and lunges].”
Could a really fast footballer become a top-level sprinter? Adam Gemili sort of did this: he was on Chelsea’s books as a youngster, eventually signed for Dagenham and Redbridge but left football in 2012 to pursue athletics full-time. He went on to win the European 200 metres title in 2014, and was part of the winning 4×100 metre relay team at the 2017 World Championships.
But take someone like Ro-Shaun Williams, who came through the Manchester United youth system, but as a 15-year-old broke Darren Campbell’s schoolboy 100 metres record. What if he, at 25, suddenly decided he wanted to be a track athlete. Could he do it?
Sotherton isn’t sure. “Maybe. I think if they’d had that background, if before 16 they had athletics in their life, it would make it easier. But I think the chances are…no.”
Dodoo is a little more bullish. “With enough time? Yes. I definitely think you can make them run fast — very, very fast. And if you’ve got enough time, if you’ve got two to three years, you can get the tendons and the muscles to adapt to the changing training and the stimulus and the running on the hard track and spikes and all those other things.
“Probably with a long-limbed footballer, you could do a really good job by adding some explosiveness to their start and making sure they had the right posture. Especially if they come from decent football training, then they’re going to have decent work capacity.”
The biggest issue might not actually be physical. “The difference is competing in a 100-metre race, is having the composure to run your own race — that is a skill in itself,” says Dodoo. “Executing that next to someone is something sprinters practise from a young age.”
We’re probably making the wrong comparisons anyway. Due to their existing skill sets, footballers would probably be more suited to 400 metres or even middle-distance running: the body types are generally a little more similar, they require both speed and endurance, an element of multi-directional flexibility and the ability to change pace rapidly. “A 400-metre runner has got that kind of training system that they’re working on, an ability to get rid of lactic acid, but also got to have the explosive strength and power and speed to be competitive,” says Gardener.
Indeed, a few years ago Sport England made a conscious effort to look for young, fast footballers leaving the game, with the intention of turning them into 400 or 800-metre runners. “They found that 400 and 800 metres were more suited to footballers because they came with the aerobic capacity,” says Dodoo.
“There’s only one way of settling this,” concludes Sotherton. “Come on, guys let’s have a race. I mean, why hasn’t this happened? When there’s a Grand Prix, or the Anniversary Games or something, we should have team sports putting in a relay team [against the professional sprinters]. Put in a 4×100 metres team and let’s settle an argument. The boys would be up for it.”
Let’s make it happen.
(Top image: Tom Slator for The Athletic)
Read the full article here