The fast show

25th June 2004 at 01:00
If the animal kingdom had its own Olympic Games, with each event scaled to the size of the competitors, some human athletes would be so far down the field, they would probably wonder why they even bothered turning up.

In the long jump, frogs would do well. American cricket frogs can easily jump 40 times their own length in a single bound, which corresponds to a human covering a mile in about 35 leaps. However, the champion long-jumper may well be the humble dog flea. It can leap more than 130 times its own body length, approximately the equivalent of a human jumping the entire length of the new Olympic stadium in Athens.

Fleas are also very good at the high jump. One kind of flea in the Negev desert, Israel, regularly jumps to heights of 20 times its own length. But ordinary fleas like those you might find on your cat or dog can easily jump more than three times as high, which is the equivalent of a person leaping to heights of more than 100m, or jumping over St Paul's Cathedral with plenty of room to spare. A flea in the Olympic squad could expect to jump even higher.

Of the larger competitors in the swimming pool, the sailfish is a guaranteed winner. It can swim for short bursts at 109kmh, which is more than 13 times as quick as the fastest recorded human swimmer. But some smaller animals are even quicker. The larvae of the clownfish can swim at a speed of 24 body lengths per second, which is like a person speeding through the water at 150kmh. At that speed, you could swim a length of an Olympic-size pool in just over a second, or cross the English Channel in about nine minutes.

An ant might well beat all the other animals at weightlifting. Some ants can work in teams to carry things that weigh up to 50 times their combined body weight (like a woman lifting two cars at the same time). But even without the help of friends, some ants can lift seeds, leaves or dead insects that are many times their own body size. Moreover, they can walk about carrying them, not just stand still for a few moments like human weightlifters.

Some Olympic sports, including football, hockey and basketball, involve teamwork. But managing to co-ordinate teams of fewer than a dozen is nothing compared with what some fish and birds can achieve. For example, dunlins (small wading birds) synchronise their movements so that many thousands flying in close formation can all make the same manoeuvre without crashing into one another. Slow-motion film reveals that one bird starts the move and the others follow in sequence, just like the spectators who will no doubt be starting Mexican waves in the crowd at this year's Olympics.

The Mexican pronghorn antelope would stand a good chance of doing well in the marathon. It can sustain speeds of 56 kmh, and if it could keep that up for 26 miles, it could run the ancient route from Marathon to Athens in 45 minutes.

There are plenty of contenders for the fastest sprinter. The cheetah is well known as the speediest land mammal. At top speeds of 100kmh, it could run the 100 metres in less than four seconds (the fastest person takes almost 10 seconds). But it would barely get through the heats, let alone onto the Olympic medal-winners' podium, when pitted against some insects.

By rolling itself into a circle, the mother-of-pearl caterpillar turns itself into a wheel that can spin through about 30 cycles a second. If you could do the same, you could run the 100 metres in 1.5 seconds.

Travelling at 240kmh, you could leave London after breakfast and be in Athens in time to watch the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.

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