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Usain Bolt

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The Republicans held their convention in Tampa, Florida, against a backdrop of Hurricane Isaac which hit the Gulf Coast on the seventh anniversary of Katrina. The Summer Olympics wrapped up in London with Usain Bolt comfortably defending his title as the world’s fastest man.

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Trust me, gym rat. Your outrageously badass treadmill workout has nothing on this.

The Pentagon’s far-out research agency, Darpa, has just released a new video of its Cheetah ‘bot — designed to mimic the rapid movements of cheetahs, the speediest animals in nature — absolutely killing it on a laboratory treadmill.

In fact, the ‘bot is running so fast (reaching 18 miles an hour at its peak) that Cheetah actually set a new land speed record, Darpa boasts, for robotic running. The previous record, set in 1989, was a measly 13.1 miles per hour. For comparison’s sake, remember that both of those speeds are much, much faster than any average human jogger. Robo-Cheetah even comes pretty close to trouncing the human world-record holder, Usain Bolt, who clocked an amazing 28 mph during the 100-meter sprint in 2009.

As you can see in the video, the robot’s spine is flexible. That intentional flexion helps Cheetah run rapidly. Boston Dynamics, the company behind Cheetah (not to mention other freaky bio-inspired robots like AlphaDog and Petman) hope the ‘bot will one day sprint as fast as 60 or 70 miles an hour — the pace of a flesh-and-blood cheetah.

Darpa hasn’t specified exactly what Cheetah’s military applications would be. But in addition to high speeds, the agency notes that Cheetah is being designed to “zigzag to chase and evade.” Darpa adds that Cheetah could also be useful for “emergency response, firefighting, advanced agriculture and vehicular travel.”

Next up for the Cheetah ‘bot will be a “free-running” exercise sometime over the next year. That’ll test the freakily fast sprinter off a tether and away from a treadmill. Sounds cool enough. But you know what we’re really hoping to see? A head-to-head with Darpa’s robo-ostrich, which is also being designed to hit hardcore speeds.

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Like the athletes he photographs, Finlay MacKay will go to any length to get the result he wants. Boat too unstable to get a shot of the two-man crew team practicing up-river? The Scotsman jumps into the freezing water with a $60,000 camera to get the right angle. Dead calm on the day he’s slated to shoot a sailing crew? MacKay talks the team into wearing wetsuits and wading in and out of the icy bay instead. Didn’t get the right expression on David Weir’s face? MacKay tries again and gets cursed at by the paralympian’s fellow athletes for standing in the middle of their training zone and slowing their times.

MacKay is one of a handful of lensmen commissioned by London’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) to work on Road to 2012, a three-year project that aims to highlight the journey to next summer’s Olympic Games. The exhibition showcases both the athletes and behind-the-scenes players who are working to make the event a success.

The London-based photographer—who earned the crew coach’s grudging respect and a case of hypothermia—not only captured the physical action, but managed to document the moments of emotional intensity as well. In one sitting, Weir’s coach, Jenny Archer, opened up to MacKay about her mother’s recent death, even as he was pointing the camera intently at her.

The experience of photographing these lesser-known athletes, who train in their backyards and fight for space in local gyms, was markedly different than the pro-athletes MacKay has shot for Nike, Adidas and the New York Times. Of the big names he’s worked with—including Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt—the photographer said, “They’re so well honed, they’re like machines.”

But machines with only 10 minutes, an entourage and a publicist– who has a schedule to keep– tapping her foot. In contrast, with the athletes from the NPG project, MacKay found himself drinking tea around the kitchen table, meeting parents and photographing them over the chatter of kids arriving for their gymnastics class at the local gym. There were all so generous with their time,” says MacKay. “One athlete practiced his tae-kwon-do kick for me over and over.”

The project has evolved from MacKay’s early shots, which paired coach and athlete in the same frame, to simply framing parallel portraits. He coaxed swimmers, boxers and rowers out of their shells to give an unsparing look at the sacrifices these athletes make in pursuit of gold. ”It wasn’t just about getting them to do a sport,” says MacKay. “It was also about getting them into a space and landscape, so you get the narrative quotient.”

Finlay MacKay’s last cover story for TIME was on the Arab Spring “The Generation Changing the World.” You can see more of his work here

Road to 2012 is on display at London’s National Portrait Gallery through Sept 25. The series is also online here

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