Cheetah expert on Johnson's chances (zero)

Chris Johnson loves to race.

The Tennessee Titans running back has long talked about his desire to run a 40-yard dash against Usain Bolt.

Instead of the Olympic gold medalist, he and Devin Hester landed slots racing against a cheetah for a television special set to air in November. (If Johnson won, something I’m guessing would be highly improbable if the cheetah was motivated, I imagine it’d be awfully hard for the running back not to talk about it before the show airs in November.)

I spoke with Liz Georges, communications coordinator for the Cheetah Conservation Fund, about the odds of Johnson and Hester in a race against a cheetah, even one in which a protective barrier might make it so the cheetah didn’t know he was running against “competition.”

Here is our chat:

Kuharsky: First, your initial thoughts on reading a story like that?

Georges: I think it’s always interesting when somebody wants to try to outrun a cheetah. (Laughter.) Cheetahs are, of course, the fastest land animal and they can reach 40 miles an hour in less than three strides and reach speeds of up to 70 miles an hour at their fastest.

Kuharsky: Can you see any scenario where the cheetah doesn’t win?

Georges: (More laughter.) Well, they’ve clocked Usain Bolt at roughly 23 miles an hour at his fastest. So I am not sure that there is really any way that the cheetah doesn’t win this race.

Kuharsky: How much money? Like all the money that you have?

Georges: (More laughter still.) I’m not a betting person usually. But in this case, I’d say a pretty hefty sum.

Kuharsky: Have you seen or heard of such a race before?

Georges: In terms of physically racing the cheetah in real time against a person, I’ve not seen it done. But it’s very common with cheetahs in captivity scenarios where they are given the opportunity to run and chase the lure, partly for their exercise and to demonstrate their speed for visitors so that people get an understanding for why the cheetah is so important and why the fact that the cheetah is the most threatened of the big cats is such a serious issue.

Kuharsky: Is a cheetah automatically motivated to run in a circumstance like this?

Georges: Typically the cats do. You’ll typically see a rag on a pulley system, the rag shoots off and the cat wants to chase it. Most of the cats we’ve worked with learn how to chase the lure pretty quickly. It feeds into their natural instincts. Many of them seem to take great pleasure in it.

Kuharsky: A guy crossing the Grand Canyon on the high wire was a huge Twitter event that got people watching. What kind of TV event do you anticipate this being? And what sort of benefit do you see for cheetahs and to an organization like yours?

Georges: I think anything that highlights how special and amazing the cheetah is as a species is great for the cheetah. The cheetah is threatened; there are only 10,000 of them left in the wild. If we don’t act soon, we could lose the cheetah from this planet in less than 20 years. So anything that highlights the speed and the grace and the importance of this animal is good news for us. Obviously it’s being done because it’s an interesting thought -- could a man beat a cheetah?

I like to say a cheetah can actually accelerate faster than a Ferrari. Any comparison like this is always sort of interesting to the human imagination. So that’s another reason why I think this is so great. The cheetah is an iconic species.

Every school kid learns about the cheetah and everybody is fascinated with the fact that this beautiful animal can run so fast. If we can’t save the cheetah with all of that interest and all of that iconic nature to it, then what hope do other species have that are as threatened if not more so?