LONDON — Usain Bolt finished the 200 meters on Thursday night in 19.32 seconds, which translates to an average speed of 23.16 miles per hour. That means he was moving faster than the average speed of a London tube train on the Piccadilly line (20.5 mph), although if he had tried to out-race the train on the tracks, he’d have been run over between stations (when it hits a peak of 40 mph). Bolt was also moving at about half the speed of an English greyhound (45 mph) or grighund, if you prefer the Old English.
When I took my seat near the finish line at Olympic Stadium, and later watched Bolt (and his two Jamaican countrymen, Yohan Blake and Warren Weir) roar around the turn in my direction, I had oddball British speed equivalents on the brain. The reason was George Hardie. A couple of days ago, on the walk back to my hotel, I happened to pass the Cartoon Museum and duck into its gift shop. My favorite thing there — and not because it was free, but that was nice, too — was a small booklet near the cash register, titled Metaphorical Measurements for a British Olympics.
It was a bunch of pocket-size whimsy, created by someone capable of viewing sports through an abnormal lens. For example, the boxing page suggested recalibrating the Olympic weight classes to match British Wild Animals, meaning some fighters would be competing for the title of Otterweight Gold Medalist:
I was pleasantly surprised to see the credits page list the author as Hardie, an illustrator who, if you don’t know him by name, you’re at least familiar with his work. While he was still studying at the Royal College of Art in 1969, he did the cover of Led Zeppelin’s debut album, and then as part of the legendary Hipgnosis crew in the ’70s, he illustrated the covers of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. If the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ever inducts designers, Hardie and Hipgnosis will be on the short list.
I called Hardie on Thursday to seek permission to blog a few pages of his booklet — and to find out why he’d created the thing in the first place. It turns out he’s now a professor at University of Brighton (as well as a Royal Designer for Industry in Britain) and he proposed the project back in 2009 for a Creative Campus Initiative’s Cultural Olympiad. They approved a run of 5,000 and he did it free of charge, putting his strange stamp on the Games. “I knew I couldn’t hit the Olympics straight on,” Hardie said. “I just quite liked the idea of a book that used a lot of English references and was ironic, in a sense that it’s completely useless. That’s the kind of humor that I like.”
It might be useless, but who wouldn’t prefer shot-putters throwing wheels of cheese alongside red double-decker buses instead of heaving stone balls in a field? As it is, shot put lacks sufficient entertainment value.
And for that matter, if London had wanted to truly London-ize the track-and-field portion of these Games, it would have built a replica Big Ben bell tower on Olympic Stadium, and rung it during distance-race intervals:
In a 2005 feature in Eye magazine, Hardie revealed that he wasn’t all that attached to his iconic music work, saying:
“While all of that famous stuff was going on I could get very excited about doing a set of detective book covers for Penguin, but those jackets will never reach the status of those record covers — they really are just jobbing illustrations. And I had problems with music. I never had a record player in all that time. It got very funny because [designers] Po [Aubrey Powell] and Storm [Thurgerson] would have to describe to me the kind of music, which they could only do in terms of other bands, which of course wasn’t very helpful. I wasn’t star-struck by the bands. When they were good they were the best possible clients. When they were bad, they were the worst possible clients.
And so when it came to high jumpers, Hardie imagined them clearing Penguin books (not detective novels, but still, Penguins) rather than album covers:
I wish Hardie had been given a shot to create an official look for these Olympics, just to see what would’ve emerged. This is a man, after all, who sees 4×400 relays and thinks of soft-boiling eggs:
It begs the question: Is there an egg recipe than can be completed in the time it took Usain Bolt to run the Olympic 200? I found a 60-second poach and even a 40-second poach, both using a microwave, but nothing close to 19.32. Bolt is too fast for other Olympians and too fast for cooked eggs.