On fascination with speed
Competitive sports are the purest expression of humankind's fascination with speed and peak performances. What inspires athletes to go higher, further and faster? And when does it make sense to ease off the pace?
The start of the women's 100-meter hurdles at the South African Championships in 2009. One of the favorites in this race is 18-year-old Irmgard Bensusan. The daughter of a German mother and South African father started track and field athletics at the age of four. Sprinting is in her blood. "For me, running fast has always felt like the ultimate form of freedom," the now 30-year-old says. "Just stretch your legs and empty your head and blast off. It's unadulterated relaxation." Bensusan's big ambition: to compete at the Olympic Games. Victory in the 100-meter hurdles at the National Championships would be a big step in the right direction.
But then fate intervenes. Just a few seconds into the race, the sprinter's leg catches a hurdle so awkwardly that her knees and lower legs are brutally twisted. The diagnosis: ruptured cruciate ligaments in the right knee, multiple fractures and severed nerves in the lower leg. The young woman can no longer feel her right foot. The doctors suggest she will make a rapid recovery, but she fails to respond to treatment. Her foot remains limp and numb. Irmgard Bensusan will never have two healthy feet again.
Around the same time, Andreas Müller wins bronze in men's scratch at the Track Cycling World Championships in Pruszków, Poland, cementing his status as one of the fastest cyclists on the planet. Originally hailing from Berlin, Müller has been competing for Austria in road and track events since 2008. A few years later, he joined the Gebrüder Weiss-Oberndorfer cycling team. Müller's life also revolves around speed. Once, while cycling downhill and with the aid of a slipstream, he cracked the 100 km/h barrier, a momentous achievement. Normally he rides at half that pace. "As a cyclist," he says, "you have to be a daredevil, we're all a little bit nutty." Müller's sporting colleague, the alpine ski racer Christian Neureuther, once encapsulated this neatly in an interview with the Financial Times Deutschland. Racers often become "addicted to the exhilaration, the elation, the forces they are exposed to when cornering," he said. It's a craving that even Müller cannot escape: "A few years back I took a brief break from cycling. After a short time, I had so much surplus energy that I grabbed my bike and raced like a madman through the Berlin traffic, completely ignoring any red lights."
The severely injured sprinter Irmgard Bensusan has to deal with even more powerful, if very different, emotions. When she realized she would be physically impaired for the rest of her life, she fell victim to depression and eating disorders. "For three and a half years, I really suffered," she says. "I had sacrificed my whole life to sprinting. I asked myself: What am I without my sport?" After a long and painful process, she managed to accept her condition – and find a way back to being herself.
In 2012, Bensusan relocated to her mother's homeland and evolved into one of the world's premier disabled sprinters at the sports club Bayer Leverkusen. With the aid of an orthosis, an external support that helps keep her injured foot in shape, she mainly competes over the distances of 100, 200 and 400 meters. Because she does not use the familiar carbon-fiber running blades, she is still subject to complaints that she has an unfair advantage over her rivals. "But that's nonsense," she says. "My foot is simply a part that I carry around in my orthosis." The mental management of her handicap has been key to her again becoming one of the world's fastest women, albeit now as a para-athlete. "I still yearn for the sense of freedom that speed offers. I was only able to relive that freedom when I had learned to accept my disability." Her newfound sense of liberty has brought her great success: at the Tokyo Paralympics, Bensusan – who now competes for Germany – won silver in the 200 meters, clocking a time of 26.58 seconds.
Road cyclist Andreas Müller, who was the flag-bearer for the Austrian team in Tokyo, has yet to grace an Olympic podium. For the 41-year-old, the fascination of speed really hits home in the bends, when the centrifugal forces are so strong that you are "forced down onto the saddle and can no longer let go of the handlebars." While most top cyclists banish all thoughts of danger, he weighs up potential risks quite rationally. "Lots of external factors affect you in road racing. By comparison, the conditions for track racers are like scientific laboratories."
Müller, who has also acted as a sports director at the Austrian Cycling Federation for some time, concurs that materials are very important in his sport – in addition to courage, talent and training discipline. This is even truer than it was a decade ago. "The technical advances in recent years have been huge. Even back in the old days, we knew what was paramount for the fastest times: aerodynamics." Aerodynamics is 95% of the battle when it comes to speed, Müller estimates. Rolling resistance, chain tension – these only make marginal differences. Today, no road cyclist would ride with an open-necked jersey. Professionals pay up to 5,000 euros for special time-trial gear; wheels and helmets are custom-designed too. "Resistance increases exponentially with speed," explains Müller, "so you have to generate less pedal wattage to improve from an average of 50 to 51 km/h than from 60 to 61 km/h." The latter has become the norm in track cycling, with average speeds 10 km/h higher than when Müller was a rookie. The nonstop hunt for new lap records sometimes has remarkable consequences. At the Tokyo Olympics, several of Müller's rivals attached special band-aids to their shins that reduced air resistance. This practice was swiftly banned. On the other hand, a tip Müller gave his colleagues is allowed: "If you want to do everything possible to minimize resistance, cut your fingernails before a race."
"For thousands of years, homo sapiens has steadfastly embraced risks," according to a 2012 article entitled "The Urge For Extremes – An Ancient Addiction" in the German newspaper DIE ZEIT. "That was how the Antarctic and Arctic were conquered, the highest peaks climbed, diets expanded and medications discovered." And races won: Irmgard Bensusan's fellow sprinter Usain Bolt ran at 44.72 km/h when setting the world 100-meters record in 2009. Müller's cycling colleague Denise Mueller-Korenek achieved an incredible 296 km/h in 2018 when she hurtled across a Utah salt flat in the slipstream of a dragster. Speed fuels the fascination. As Formula 1 legend Michael Schumacher once said: "It's always about how good your feel for extremes is. Pushing yourself to the limits gives you a fantastic thrill and sense of satisfaction. But it entails a never-ending struggle too, against the laws of physics." It's a struggle that harbors plenty of dangers. Andreas Müller noticed "significantly more crashes than usual" at the Tokyo Olympics. And, in 2009, Irmgard Bensusan experienced for herself what can happen – even on a tartan track.
After exhausting years and months of preparation for the 2021 Paralympics, the silver medal winning Bensusan now wants to ease off – by embarking on a long-planned backpacking tour. It may even be a rewarding voyage into the unknown. That is, if she can succumb to the allure of slowing down.
Alex Raack is a freelance author and was editor for the soccer magazine 11 FREUNDE for many years.