The Olympics on Animal Planet

"On this single planet called Earth, there co-exist (among countless other life forms), algae, beetles, sponges, jellyfish, snakes, condors, and giant sequoias. Imagine these seven living organisms lined up next to each other in one-place. If you didn’t know better, you would be hard-pressed to believe that they all came from the same universe, much less the same planet".
–Neil deGrasse Tyson, American Museum of Natural History
Modern marathon has its antecedent from the Battle of Marathon and a messenger carrying news of an imminent Persian invasion

Beginning this week, the Olympics Games will not feature any animals in their sporting events–except the age-old symbiosis between horse and humans that highlight equestrian competition.

That distinction between species of competitors was significant enough that the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia had all their events "Down-Under", except for the equestrian events which were held in another hemisphere, in Stockholm, Sweden half way around the world. Two Olympic flames had to be lit that year, one torch for the human events, one for the human-horse events. It was two different competitions. That year, the separation and cooperation between species seemed particularly special.

With over 10,000 human competitors taking part in more than 20 sports, the Olympic battle of better physiques leaves out the other millions of species with specialized survival skills. These animals have evolved their success from repeated failures, as matters of life and death.

What if this was not the case?

Humans have evolved some of the most sophisticated strategies for mutualism between themselves and the animal world. The Olympic Games may feature the horse-human symbiosis, but most of the skills that promote a single species’ survival have been dominated by humans and selected for their showcase of raw, unaided strength, speed or swift strokes. Darwinian selection has been announced through history with the same life-and-death struggle that is the Olympic hallmark: Let the Games Begin.

Are humans the master of tools? No, enter the chimp. Are humans the master of language? Ask the dolphin…or a dog. Rico, a dog with an approximately 200-word "vocabulary," can learn the names of unfamiliar toys after just one exposure to the new word-toy combination.
Credit: Susanne Baus

So in a game that turns beasts of burden from mutualism to competition, who wins?

In most cases of physical competition, the animals beat us at our own games.

It seems only fitting that the master of mutualism, Tarzan, was an Olympian of sorts. The actor, Johnny Weismuller (1904-1984), who went on to play Tarzan, won swimming gold medals at the 1924 Paris Olympics and 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. But even the fastest human in the water must have sensed his ill-design. Tarzan was not king of the jungle–nor gold medalist in an Olympics featuring all global representatives.

It does not take Tarzan’s close proximity to the wild, to discover that cooperation becomes the better bet instead of direct competition. Consider the winning species in an imagined Olympic moment.

The 100 meter gun fires. The fastest human today will sprint the distance in under 10 seconds. If sustainable, his speed would peak at 36 kilometers per hour (around 20 miles per hour). But next to the human champion are three rivals: the ostrich, the cheetah, and the greyhound. The race is no contest.

The cheetah can finish the race with a burst-speed of 104 kilometers per hour (around 60 mph) and a winning time of 3 seconds.

If the cheetah’s burst could be sustained, its sprint would lap the circumference of the Earth in 10 days, as opposed to the 10 months that several hundred human relay runners carry today’s Olympic torches.

The lean cheetah seems destined by its design for bursts of speed, but as if engaged in a strangely balanced race, it also has to survive by chasing the fleet-footed antelope, gazelle and springbok –with only a thin 10 mph edge over its prey. Faced with the faster cheetah, an impala jumps 10 meters in a single bound, always changing its unpredictable direction to create its own predator-prey advantages. In our Olympic long jump, the elusive impala would beat Carl Lewis at his own game.

These species seem expert at one thing. But what about those animals less well-designed for running or not locked in such a food-chain that rewards speed alone? As if to mock human pride further, the bulky, relatively predator-free African elephant can run faster than Carl Lewis. The short-legged hippo is hardly embarrassed by its own Olympic try (30 kph).

If not limited to land speeds, the air champion of birds, the aptly-named swift, could fly the same distance at nearly twice the speed (170 kph, or 102 mph) of the cheetah’s run. With the help of gravity and wind, a peregrine falcon has been clocked in a dive at speeds of 300 kph, or 185 mph–nearly a quarter of the speed needed to break the sound barrier.

In the Olympic sprint, one notable finisher is a bird species entirely out of its natural element, the flightless ostrich can reach speeds twice as fast as our fastest human sprint. If the Olympics is a fair competition among the best on the planet, it would appear human vanity is the only attribute with its head buried in the sand.

Do all species have their own fleeting epoch of glory? Dinosaurs dominated the planet for over 150 million years, occupying all the niches mammals currently occupy. During the age of the dinosaurs, our ancestors were small, rodent-like creatures scavenging for food in the low grass. What accounts for these seemingly unfair competitive advantages?
Image Credit: National Geographic

In a challenge between champions of the different biospheres, humans seem particularly ungainly in water. Our best-trained swimmers cover 100 meters about four times slower than our fastest runners. We are a species of the land, which only hang onto the shallowest shores of air and water.

Again, the 100 meter gun fires. This time, the stopwatch is set for the freestyle Olympic swimming event. In lane one, the fastest human with an anticipated racing time around 47 seconds. In lane two, a killer whale. Lane three, a squid. Lane four, the sailfish. Completing the field in lane five, the swordfish. The winner touches the finish line in a shocking three seconds.

A slow blink of the eye, and the human has been embarrassed by its design. On planet earth, the alpha species has arrived with hands instead of fins, legs instead of a tail and gasping nostrils in place of gills. When Olympic swimmers shave their entire bodies to gain an extra fraction of a second, our lack of evolutionary fitness for water is exposed for all to see. Minimizing friction has not been much of a design advantage unless one occupies a particularly viscous niche of the ecosystem.

The champion swimmer, the swordfish, can manage a record-breaking 130 kph pace (78 mph) followed closely by the sailfish –also traveling at speedboat velocities of 109 kph, or 66 mph. In this field, the fastest human is a pathetic last place finisher, with a pace of 8 kph, or less than a fast walk on land of 5 mph.

Without machine assistance, humans seem particularly challenged as a species when faced with air and water. Fortunately the memory of having a tail (and gills) is not too distant. As one principle of embryology maintains, stages of evolution from water to land are played out in our mother’s womb. All humans have to lose their gills and tail, in order eventually to master the land.

The list of feats available for awarding Olympic gold is plentiful in this Darwinian competition for specialized fitness. The long jump winner is the eastern grey kangaroo, which is capable of a 12 meter leap, or about the length of a school bus. Even with the advantage of a running start, the human record is limited to slightly less than 9 meters.

Does the man-machine symbiosis define a new capability–or record holder? "It might be argued that among mammals, humans developed intelligence first and are thereby effectively precluding the development of intelligence in any other species. It follows from this argument that intelligence evolves once and only once on a planet, because once evolved it changes the rules of the interaction between species and effectively dominates the planet from then on." –NASA Astrobiologist, Chris McKay Image Credit: JPL

To an evolutionary theorist, the only event that matters is the game of survival, which is a complex function of reproductive rates, maturation, resource limits and lifespan. The competition here is rather unfair. A marine clam can live 200 years, but not reproduce often. The termite can lay 40,000 eggs per day. To conserve resource requirements, a koala can sleep 22 hours a day. Lemmings can enter reproductive maturity after only 14 days on the planet. The delicate, precarious state of mammalian pregnancy can last 22 months in an Asian elephant. The only correlation one finds among the current Olympiads with survival advantage for humans is lifespan: homo sapiens live the longest of any mammal.

So where else do humans display their innate prowess? In theory, the answer is everywhere given that the Olympics themselves are symbolic of our extreme capabilities for organization. But obvious human-only events are there: shooting rifles, javelin throws, fencing and archery. Despite strong showings from chimps, humans are the toolmakers and sports can showcase this capability. Toolmaking used to be the accepted definition that separated humans from animals, until animal behaviorist Jane Goodall first observed chimps fishing for termites with dry reeds and grass shoots as poles.

Which brings the question of mutualism and competition back to where it started, to the Olympic equestrian events. This unique symbiosis between humans and horses dates back to the earliest stages of civilization. One definition of work itself is measured in units of this unique relation–horsepower.

But such mutualism is a fraction of the dependence of civilization on another combination, this time forged between materials and intellect. All winners, whether animal or human, are likely temporary champions. The animal Olympics is far from the top of the evolved food chain.

The mutualism between man and machine, if allowed to compete in Olympic events, would lap all record-holders. The pinnacle of human capabilities is likely our talent to create machines, to forge an idea into something faster and stronger than an army of Olympiads or any chimera between the beasts of burden.

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