An incomplete history of human vs. animal races
The biggest race of the weekend will not be contested on the track but off the coast of Capetown, South Africa, as the most decorated Olympian of all-time races another dominant species. Michael Phelps will be racing a great white shark in a 100-meter open-water race as part of a Discovery Channel special for Shark Week.
Not too many details have been divulged into how they set up the Phelps race without having him killed by getting too close to the shark but it should make for an intriguing special at 8 p.m. on July 23.
Some of the most fascinating races to the general public are those that pit the best humans against other animals. Usain Bolt may be past his prime so we’ll never get to see what could’ve been an epic race between him and a cheetah for 100 meters. Bolt’s world record of 9.58 apparently doesn’t hold a candle to Sarah, an 11-year old cheetah from the Cincinnati Zoo (home of Harambe) who clocked a 5.95 for the distance.
Here are a other instances where humans have gone head-to-head against animals:
Jesse Owens vs. a horse
If you watched the movie Race, which tells the story of Jesse Owens’ life and success at the 1936 Olympics, the movie ends before the audience sees the Olympic legend declare bankruptcy. In his search for money, he would race against locals and give them a head start at times, which is something we laugh at now when we watch something similar with the Freeze at Major League Ballparks. The Freeze, also known as Nidgel Talton, has said in interviews that he’d love a sponsor as a way of making money outside of his duties as a member of the grounds crew. A lot of people may not understand the difference between a 10.3 and 9.90 sprinter but they will recognize fast when its one person dominating the other.
“People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do?” Owens said at the time. “I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”
There’s some footage on Youtube of Owens getting a head start on a horse in Cuba and winning by just inches. It’s a smart move. The gun goes off and in addition to the head start, it probably takes a second or two for the horse to overcome the noise and then takeoff.
Oscar Pistorius destroys a horse
As part of a benefit to promote disability sport in the Middle East, Oscar Pistorius raced a horse over 200 meters in Doha. This one isn’t much of a race since it’s pretty clear that the jockey on the horse really struggled out of the gate and never really made it close against Pistorius, who had a 15-meter head start.
Controversy did follow this race as the South African SPCA outraged at the treatment of the horse, which it says was “unnecessarily and cruelly whipped from start to finish.”
Man vs. Horse Marathon
OK, this is the last one that we’ll do with horses. Every June, Llawrtyd, Wales, hosts the Man Versus Horse Marathon, which is not 26.2 miles but more like 24 miles with 4,683 feet of climbing. Owens and Pistorius gave us two very short races but this endurance contest is a great example for how horses would fare over a longer distance. It’s appropriate that the race originated to settle a bar argument between two people because these are the types of questions runners have while they’re out sometimes.
In the race’s history there have been just two human champions. 2004 was a humid race and Huw Lobb was able to come out on top. In 2007, Florian Holzinger spent a chunk of time training at altitude in the Alps and still just barely beat the horse. The race features less than 1,000 runners, 60 horses with riders and some relay teams. There have been times when the runner crosses the finish line first but they subtract the 15-minute head start that the human gets at the end and sometimes that’s the difference for the horse.
(If the race organizers are reading this, we’d be more than happy to field a team and race next year. Email us. For any professional in Arizona looking to make some headlines, there is a U.S. race against a horse in October that you can do for less than $40.)
Devin Hester, Chad Johnson race a cheetah
National Geographic has its “Big Cat Week” and recruited legendary kick returner Devin Hester and former combine 40-yard dash record holder Chris Johnson to race a cheetah. This race wasn’t best suited for the cheetah and so Hester came out with a B.S. victory and it just narrowly beat Johnson. Any straight-out race and the cheetah smokes Hester, John Ross or any football player.
Shawn Crawford vs. a giraffe and zebra
This is a must-watch (kudos to David Torrence for reminding us about it) Crawford takes an easy victory against a giraffe but then gets defeated by a zebra. Crawford was quick to catch onto the fact that the zebra false-started.
“The zebra did jump! I don’t know why the starter didn’t call it back?! The zebra was out before I even lifted my hands so I had to play catch-up for the whole race.”
“What can I say, I got beat by a zebra.”
Midget relay vs. Camel
We have no words.
Dennis Northcutt vs. Ostrich
You probably haven’t heard Dennis Northcutt’s name in ages but there is footage of him on Youtube with John Brenkus (the guy who interrupts the New York City Marathon broadcast to tell you obvious facts about running) and an attempt to race an ostrich. This one is a no-brainer as to who is faster but because we can’t force an ostritch to run in a straight line, it loses the straight-out dash to Northcutt. Put them in the same cage and that’s a whole other story.