Fourth-Place Medal

Does Sanya Richards-Ross’ long hair slow her down?

Chris Chase
Fourth-Place Medal

(AP)

It's impossible not to notice while watching Sanya Richards-Ross run. The gold medalist in the 400 has a lot of hair. A LOT. So does 110-meter hurdling silver medalist Jason Richardson and countless other track competitors in London.

Does it slow them down when they're running around the track?

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Slate asked this question earlier in the week and came to the conclusion that the hair shouldn't have an effect:

Still, even the most unruly hair is unlikely to make a major difference. Imagine that you are a 400-meter sprinter who uses 10 percent of your total energy battling air resistance. Imagine, too, that you increased your total surface area by 10 percent (a generous assumption) by letting your hair fly free. Drag and surface area are directly proportional—you can check out the equation—so you would be increasing the force of air resistance by 10 percent by untying your ponytail. [...] You would need to exert 1 percent—10 percent of 10 percent—more effort with your hair down than with your hair up.

I read that completely differently. It's not, "eh, the hair isn't a big deal -- she only has to exert 1 percent more." To the contrary; it's "the hair makes her work 1 percent harder!!!" That's a HUGE deal in races that can be decided by hundredths of a second. If effort were time, 1 percent is equivalent to a half-second in a race won in 49.55. If Richards went 1 percent slower in her race, she'd have finished in fifth place.

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Nike boasts about how its track uniforms can cut times by 0.023 seconds and spends millions to develop lighter, springier shoes that makes it runners go faster. Swimmers wear two caps so their goggle straps don't cause resistance on the water. Every little bit counts in races like this.

So to answer the question: The hair of Richards-Ross slows her down a little. She won the gold in the 400m by 0.15 seconds, but it may have been by a wee bit more. She did miss out of fourth place by .01 seconds in the 200m, and the hair very well could have been the difference there. She's lucky it wasn't for a medal.

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