I usually only watch the track events at the Olympics and that too only after it is over. I was watching the finals of the women’s 100m and noticed that the top three medal winners (all from Jamaica) all had long ponytails, with the silver medalist’s hair an eye-catching yellow and red.
I wondered whether having long hair might slow them down just a fraction due to increased wind resistance. It is true that resistance is not as significant as in swimming where everyone wears caps. But in an event where one-hundredth of a second can make all the difference, wouldn’t sprinters want to minimize drag as much as possible?
Since almost all the eight finalists had long or longish hair, I have to assume that they have concluded that it does not matter and that does seem to be the case.
Flowing locks increase air resistance insofar as they boost a runner’s surface area. More hair creates more opportunities for friction between the runner and the air, so a full-headed athlete would have to work harder to maintain the same speed as a bald one. And since Olympic sprinters are already close to maxing out in terms of effort, any situation that requires them to do more work has the potential to extend their times.
But hair is pretty light, so athletes know it’s the styling, not the quantity, of their tresses that could dash their hopes. Hairdos like ponytails, braids, and or buns, which comb the mane behind the neck, have little effect on overall surface area, while hair that sticks out from the sides of the head increase it (and might also whip into the runner’s eyes).
All the sprinters had their hair in ponytails that stayed behind their backs and did not swish back and forth.