The Fastest Men on Earth, by Neil Duncanson

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The Independent Culture

We're conditioned to believe that the human race's athletic ability improves on a steady upward curve, but Usain Bolt's 2009 achievement in shattering his own 100m record by an astonishing 11/100ths of a second put a large dent in that theory.

As did recent analysis of 20,000-year-old fossilised footprints in Australia, which indicated our cave-dwelling ancestors were probably capable of running at speeds in excess of 28mph, a level Bolt has yet to attain. Yet whatever the speed, being recognised as the quickest person on the planet has attracted enormous cachet since reliable records began, and Neil Duncanson has produced a highly enjoyable history.

He bases his account around the 100m finals of the modern Olympic era, and British readers will be tempted to start with the chapters on our trio of winners – Harold Abrahams (1924), Allan Wells (1980) and Linford Christie (1992). The first of these reveals what a fairytale the film Chariots of Fire was; as one of Abrahams' nephews remarks pithily: "They got three things right. Harold was Jewish, he went to Cambridge and he won the 100 metres. The rest you can just 'enjoy'."

Yet the stories of other, largely forgotten, runners are even more extraordinary. The flamboyant "California Comet" Charley Paddock, gold medallist at Antwerp in 1920, produced an airborne finish, flinging himself at the line from 12 feet out, before retiring to Hollywood as a film star; his modest compatriot Lindy Remigino was regarded as only the third best sprinter in his college team, let alone the world, before he won in Helsinki 32 years later.

Can Bolt be beaten in 2012? After reading this, you'll know anything can happen.

Published in hardback by Andre Deutsch, £18.99