A Kylian Mbappe vs Usain Bolt 100m race? Fun, but football isn’t played in straight lines

Footballers are pretty fast. Perhaps with 2024 being an Olympic year, there is even more temptation to compare them to actual sprinters.

This summer’s Games in Paris might yet feature Kylian Mbappe, but they definitely won’t feature Usain Bolt. With the delayed 2020 Olympics held behind closed doors in Tokyo in 2021, it is the first Olympic Games fans will attend since Bolt retired.

Bolt has become the de facto yardstick for measuring elite footballers and their sprinting capacities. It has become so mainstream that Mbappe, one of the fastest footballers in the world currently, has been asked about the prospect of them racing each other.

“It would be fun, why not one day if we both have the time? I don’t expect much from the result,” said Mbappe. “He inspired everyone and I think everyone has woken up late in the night to watch one of Bolt’s races. I can say that it’s reciprocal and that I started to admire him first.”

Those words conjure images of an 11-year-old Mbappe up past his bedtime to see Bolt’s 100m world record (9.58 seconds) in Berlin in 2009 and watching on in awe at Bolt’s double 100m and 200m gold at London 2012.

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(Mark Dadswell/Getty Images)

Commentators love making these comparisons, most recently for Tottenham Hotspur’s Micky van de Ven, who recorded the highest top speed in Premier League history against Brentford. From effectively a standing start on the halfway line, he ate up the pitch to chase a through ball and stop Keane Lewis-Potter.

It is fast, in terms of pure speed. In fact, the Premier League is becoming more athletic — seven of the top 10 highest speeds, since 2020-21, have been recorded this season. But extrapolating this top speed to an entire 100m does not really work, especially given sprinters start from static, in blocks.

This is why Bolt’s ‘average’ speed (nobody in athletics ever looks at this, for the reason above) over his 100m world record is close to Van de Ven’s top speed. Bolt hit over 44km/h between metres 60 and 80 in his 100m world record, a full 7km/h faster than Van de Ven.



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Ironically, Bolt (6ft 5in; 196cm) is a better comparison for Van de Ven (6ft 4in) than Mbappe (5ft 10in). Even by sprinter standards, Bolt is tall and heavy, which made him such an engrossing sprinter to watch and a particularly devastating anchor leg in relays.

He did not beat his rivals out the blocks, typically a few steps behind Justin Gatlin (6ft 1in) in the early stages as his long(er) legs could not turn over as fast. Bolt took longer to get out of his transition phase (accelerating) and into his drive phase (top speed), but once he was there, he closed the gap and invariably flew past.

Bolt won races from 45m onwards by maximising his superior stride length and holding his speed when rivals fatigued — despite how it looks watching, he does not get faster, his opponents just tire sooner. Mbappe is much more of a Gatlin, or China’s Su Bingtian, who has the fastest start of any male sprinter.

It all explains why Mbappe and Bolt have had success in their own sports but would be nowhere near such levels if they crossed over. Bolt proved as much, with two pre-season games and an eight-week trial at Central Coast Mariners in 2018, shortly after retiring from athletics.



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There are a few obvious reasons: his age at the time (well into his thirties and with a body worn down by decades of sprinting), plus a distinct lack of technical ability, with former Perth Glory striker Andy Keogh saying Bolt’s first touch was “like a trampoline”.

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(Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

The less obvious — but equally important — reason is that football is less about sprinting and more about accelerating and decelerating.

A 2016 paper by Norwegian researchers referenced that accelerations occur somewhere between three and eight times as often in games as sprints — playing position, game state and physical fatigue based on the minute in the game are all reasons for such a wide range. For instance, other studies have found an average of 10 sprints per game (over 30km/h) per player, but as many as 16 per game for wingers and five for central midfielders.

Watch clips of Bolt playing — and this is only in A-League pre-season — and while he stands out for size and power, it really does not translate because the physical demands are completely different. He never needed to sprint for even 50m (roughly half the length of a football pitch) and struggled to decelerate quickly to get shots off or beat an opponent.

Vicente del Bosque, manager of the Spain national team that won the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, explained the specific nature of Bolt’s strengths in a football environment: “For a team that counter-attacks hard and transitions quickly into open space, sure, he would fit. It also depends because it’s not just about covering 100, or 60, or 70 metres on the pitch. It’s about doing it many times over and that requires stamina.”

Del Bosque is referencing repeated sprint ability, with football being intermittent — a mix of walking, jogging, running and sprinting. Bolt tried playing as a winger but lacked the sharpness over incredibly short distances to get away from a defender, let alone the technical ability to move at speed with the ball. His timing to attack crosses was poor and he needed significantly more steps to decelerate after making a run than a ‘proper’ footballer.

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(Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

When testing sprint ability, clubs look at players over 30 metres. Inside PSV Eindhoven’s academy, their benchmark for first-team level is under four seconds, but specifically the first 10 metres in under 1.9 seconds from a static start — the top speed is important, but the ability to get up to that quickly matters more.

Then consider that football is all about different types of sprints. Bolt runs in a straight line, save for the 200m where he has to run a bend (historically a strength of his). In football, sprints involve changes of directions, making arced and zig-zag runs, then decelerating off just a few steps — this might be to attack a cross, press an opponent without overcommitting, or move a defender to create a yard of space.

Take what has become a trademark Mbappe goal: all about accelerating quickly and then decelerating to force a defender to square up. For example, at home to AC Milan in this season’s Champions League.

Warren Zaire-Emery releases Mbappe outside Fikayo Tomori.

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Tomori tries to defend side-on but has to back off as Mbappe accelerates — note he is dribbling with his laces, as this naturally matches the motion of running (compared to using the sole).

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Then Mbappe cuts in and puts the brakes on, with Tomori scrambling to turn and block the shot. In doing so, he ends up square-on and Mbappe shoots through his legs and into the near post, with the decoy of the typical far-post finish rooting goalkeeper Mike Maignan to the spot.

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Almost 40 per cent of Premier League goals in 2018-19 were scored following a deceleration and/or turn. It is the reason England put Kyle Walker up against Mbappe in the 2022 World Cup quarter-final — he could match Mbappe for top speed but also had comparable acceleration and deceleration.

If Mbappe tried a burst of pace past him, Walker could go stride for stride but was also able to slow down quickly enough when Mbappe tried to come inside. Walker said his problems in that game came when he “slowed down too much”, nothing to do with his speed at all, but knowing how and when to use it.

It might all be a bit of fun, but if anyone imagines Mbappe could genuinely compete against an elite sprinter, or vice versa, they are sorely mistaken.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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