03. Performance

Top 5 Olympic Sports with the Fastest Reactions

August 3, 2021

The Olympics represents the embodiment of human excellence through sport. Whether it's through exceptional speed, strength, stamina, skill or mental grit, modern Olympians push the vanguards of human performance. Here we'll cover the top 5 most demanding Olympic sports that test very the limits of what it means to have lightning fast reactions.

1. Badminton

Badminton, or Battledore as it was originally called, is our surprise sport topping the list – and for good reason. If asked what’s the fastest moving human-powered projectile in sports, most people would opt for a hockey puck or golf ball. Believe it or not, the world’s best badminton players can smash a shuttle cock or ‘birdie’ close to half of the speed of sound! And this sport tops the world record speed charts by a considerable margin.

• Badminton – 493 km/h.

• Golf – 339.6 km/h.

• Jai Alai – 302 km/h.

• Squash – 281.6 km/h.

• Tennis – 263.4 km/h.

• Hockey – 183.7 km/h.

• Baseball – 174.0 km/h.

• Cricket – 161.3 km/h.

Perceiving and predicting a shuttlecock's trajectory and then getting a racket to an object moving at those kinds of velocities, truly demands lightning-fast reactions. Enough said!

2. Track and Field 100m

From Jesse Owens through to Usain Bolt, this sub 10 second sprint has hosted many of the most famous track and field legends to ever grace the sport. Maybe it’s because it’s the shortest lasting event in the Games, but this race consistently produces the most iconic moments in the modern Olympics. Not convinced, then check out this video of the top 10 most exciting 100m races in history.

Nothing elicits the drama and tension around a single sports reaction as the start of 100m final of the Olympic Games. Entire stadiums fall to an eerie silence in anticipation of the start gun firing.

The importance of a fast reaction out of the blocks is epitomized by the IOC’s dramatic 2010 rule change to punish false starts with immediate disqualification. Until that year false starts were becoming increasingly common in big races, due to sprinters trying to effectively predict, rather than react, to the firing of the gun. This leveraged a miniscule but very real winning advantage.

3. 50m and 100m Freestyle Swimming

This year’s 50m freestyle swimming finals included new Olympic records in both the men’s and women’s finals. But it was the 100m men’s freestyle final which showed just how much fast reactions of the blocks count in terms of medal positions. As we reported in our last blog, the difference between gold and silver was a mere 0.06 seconds – less than one sixth of the time it takes to blink!

Maybe it’s because elite swimmers push the very boundaries of human performance, but aquatic sprints at the world-class level consistently produce extremely close finishes. An analysis of the Rio 2016 Games revealed that changing race time results by just 0.1 second would have caused 30 medals to have changed hands.

It's the reason why professional swimmers undergo intensive periods of drill training to hone their off-the-block reactions. Even though this typically produces improved dive reactions of just 0.03 seconds or less, hundredths of seconds literally make or break dreams in big finals.

4. Taekwondo

In combat sports across the board, reacting to rapidly dodge incoming punches or kicks is half of the battle. Elite Mixed Martials Arts coach Dr. Velasquez sums it up succinctly,

Literally just one blink at the wrong time, and you got hit!

A mere fraction of second response time can mean the very real difference between being conscious or unconscious. Taekwondo developed out of 2,000 years of martial arts on the Korean peninsula, becoming the dominant form of weaponless fighting skill. Today it’s practiced by a whopping 80 million people in more than 200 countries. One of the world's most popular sports, it has been an official event in the Olympics since the Sydney 2000 games.

Compared to other combat sports, high-speed reflexes are particularly essential for success in Taekwondo competitions. Striking attacks involve moving the minimum amount of body mass necessary, in order to accelerate kicks and punches as quickly and effectively as humanly possible. Occasionally this involves blisteringly fast roundhouse kicks to an opponent’s head to land knockout blows.

Naturally then, these athletes need to be faster then their opponents attacks to be able to compete. German sports scientists showed that Taekwondo athletes not only move speedily and efficiently, but that their visual perceptions are exceptionally acute at detecting body movements at the precise moment an attack is first initiated.

5. Tennis

Although long rallies in tennis can demand as many as 50 quick reactions in succession, it’s the infamous serve where the limits of human perception and reaction are truly tested.

The most powerful serves in the game can propel the ball in excess of 160mph. That’s just a number, but this virtual 1st person video from the receiving end shows just how little time there is to respond.

The window for reactions is so small that it is impossible to react quickly enough in the traditional sense of response time. This is because converting conscious visual perception of ball velocity and trajectory into nerve signals to execute motor function responses on these timescales, is simply beyond human ability.

For this reason, tennis players have to develop the ability to read subtle movement cues in their opponents serve action. This effectively allows them to predict where the ball will be and start moving into position before it actually leaves the racket. It’s a sport where inexperienced players, no matter how fast their reactions are, simply can’t compete with the pros.

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