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Could water running be the next Olympic sport?

The 2024 Paris Olympics are fast approaching, and the world’s best athletes will be competing for gold on the track, road and field. Is there potential for a new Olympic sport that challenges traditional athletic norms? Enter water running, a phenomenon demonstrated by basilisk lizards and a bird called the Western Grebe. Scientists are exploring the idea that humans could also accomplish this extraordinary feat, as reported physicsworld.com.

Western GrebeWestern Grebe
Photo: wikicommons

So how do animals do this?

Often called the “Jesus Christ lizard” for its ability to run on water, the basilisk lizard can escape predators by briefly running on the surface of the water. Dr. Tonia HsiehHsieh, a biologist at Harvard University, has studied the way lizards defy gravity. Hsieh discovered that when lizards run, their large feet hit the water, creating a force that propels them forward and upward. Hsieh’s research showed that while these lizards can run on water due to their speed and foot size, balancing on this constantly changing surface is still a significant challenge.

Basilisk lizardBasilisk lizard
lizard Photo: Bernard Dupont/wikiCommons

People and running water

The idea of ​​humans mastering the ability to speed across water surfaces is appealing but challenging, say Harvard researchers Tom McMahon And Jim Glasheen He developed a mathematical model that suggests that to run on water, a human would have to hit the water with a force about 15 times greater than the maximum force he could exert. The Basilisk also runs on a flexible surface, unlike humans running on a track or road.

More recent experiments have investigated reduced gravity conditions to simulate water flow. Their findings showed that while humans can achieve water flow for a few seconds at 10% Earth gravity, the speed and forces required on Earth make this impossible.

Sha'Carri RichardsonSha'Carri Richardson
Sha’Carri Richardson at the 2023 USATF championships. Photo: Kevin Morris

Sha’Carri Richardson can run in space

Saturn’s moon Titan offers a potential venue for water running. With only 13.8% of Earth’s gravity and lakes of liquid ethane, could athletes like current women’s 100m champion Richardson run on Titan’s surface? Richardson’s sprinting abilities could make running on Titan’s ethane lakes possible, but she would need to cope with the extremely cold temperatures.

While water running remains a natural phenomenon rather than a viable Olympic sport (at least for now), it does inspire imagination about what’s possible in different environments. If space exploration continues to advance, we could one day see Olympians racing in the waters of distant planets.