David Epstein is an investigative reporter who covers the wide-open space where sports, science and medicine overlap….Speaker’s full profile here
David Epstein – Sports science reporter
The Olympic motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius.” Faster, Higher, Stronger. And athletes have fulfilled that motto rapidly.
The winner of the 2012 Olympic marathon ran two hours and eight minutes. Had he been racing against the winner of the 1904 Olympic marathon, he would have won by nearly an hour and a half. Now we all have this feeling that we’re somehow just getting better as a human race, inexorably progressing, but it’s not like we’ve evolved into a new species in a century.
So what’s going on here? I want to take a look at what’s really behind this march of athletic progress.
In 1936, Jesse Owens held the world record in the 100 meters. Had Jesse Owens been racing last year in the world championships of the 100 meters, when Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt finished, Owens would have still had 14 feet to go. That’s a lot in sprinter land.
To give you a sense of how much it is, I want to share with you a demonstration conceived by sports scientist Ross Tucker. Now picture the stadium last year at the world championships of the 100 meters: thousands of fans waiting with baited breath to see Usain Bolt, the fastest man in history; flashbulbs popping as the nine fastest men in the world coil themselves into their blocks. And I want you to pretend that Jesse Owens is in that race.
Now close your eyes for a second and picture the race. Bang! The gun goes off. An American sprinter jumps out to the front. Usain Bolt starts to catch him. Usain Bolt passes him, and as the runners come to the finish, you’ll hear a beep as each man crosses the line. (Beeps) That’s the entire finish of the race.
You can open your eyes now. That first beep was Usain Bolt. That last beep was Jesse Owens. Listen to it again. (Beeps) When you think of it like that, it’s not that big a difference, is it? And then consider that Usain Bolt started by propelling himself out of blocks down a specially fabricated carpet designed to allow him to travel as fast as humanly possible.
Jesse Owens, on the other hand, ran on cinders, the ash from burnt wood, and that soft surface stole far more energy from his legs as he ran. Rather than blocks, Jesse Owens had a gardening trowel that he had to use to dig holes in the cinders to start from. Biomechanical analysis of the speed of Owens’ joints shows that had been running on the same surface as Bolt, he wouldn’t have been 14 feet behind, he would have been within one stride. Rather than the last beep, Owens would have been the second beep.
Listen to it again. (Beeps) That’s the difference track surface technology has made, and it’s done it throughout the running world.
Consider a longer event. In 1954, Sir Roger Bannister became the first man to run under four minutes in the mile. Nowadays, college kids do that every year. On rare occasions, a high school kid does it.
As of the end of last year, 1,314 men had run under four minutes in a mile, but like Jesse Owens, Sir Roger Bannister ran on soft cinders that stole far more energy from his legs than the synthetic tracks of today. So I consulted biomechanics experts to find out how much slower it is to run on cinders than synthetic tracks, and their consensus that it’s one and a half percent slower.
So if you apply a one and a half percent slowdown conversion to every man who ran his sub-four mile on a synthetic track, this is what happens. Only 530 are left. If you look at it from that perspective, fewer than ten new men per decade have joined the sub-four mile club since Sir Roger Bannister.
Now, 530 is a lot more than one, and that’s partly because there are many more people training today and they’re training more intelligently. Even college kids are professional in their training compared to Sir Roger Bannister, who trained for 45 minutes at a time while he ditched gynecology lectures in med school. And that guy who won the 1904 Olympic marathon in three and a half hours, that guy was drinking rat poison and brandy while he ran along the course. That was his idea of a performance-enhancing drug.
Clearly, athletes have gotten more savvy about performance-enhancing drugs as well, and that’s made a difference in some sports at some times, but technology has made a difference in all sports, from faster skis to lighter shoes.
Take a look at the record for the 100-meter freestyle swim. The record is always trending downward, but it’s punctuated by these steep cliffs. This first cliff, in 1956, is the introduction of the flip turn. Rather than stopping and turning around, athletes could somersault under the water and get going right away in the opposite direction.
This second cliff, the introduction of gutters on the side of the pool that allows water to splash off, rather than becoming turbulence that impedes the swimmers as they race. This final cliff, the introduction of full-body and low-friction swimsuits.
Throughout sports, technology has changed the face of performance. In 1972, Eddy Merckx set the record for the longest distance cycled in one hour at 30 miles, 3,774 feet. Now that record improved and improved as bicycles improved and became more aerodynamic all the way until 1996, when it was set at 35 miles, 1,531 feet, nearly five miles farther than Eddy Merckx cycled in 1972.
But then in 2000, the International Cycling Union decreed that anyone who wanted to hold that record had to do so with essentially the same equipment that Eddy Merckx used in 1972. Where does the record stand today? 30 miles, 4,657 feet, a grand total of 883 feet farther than Eddy Merckx cycled more than four decades ago. Essentially the entire improvement in this record was due to technology.
Still, technology isn’t the only thing pushing athletes forward. While indeed we haven’t evolved into a new species in a century, the gene pool within competitive sports most certainly has changed.
In the early half of the 20th century, physical education instructors and coaches had the idea that the average body type was the best for all athletic endeavors: medium height, medium weight, no matter the sport. And this showed in athletes’ bodies.
In the 1920s, the average elite high-jumper and average elite shot-putter were the same exact size. But as that idea started to fade away, as sports scientists and coaches realized that rather than the average body type, you want highly specialized bodies that fit into certain athletic niches, a form of artificial selection took place, a self-sorting for bodies that fit certain sports, and athletes’ bodies became more different from one another.
Today, rather than the same size as the average elite high jumper, the average elite shot-putter is two and a half inches taller and 130 pounds heavier. And this happened throughout the sports world.
In fact, if you plot on a height versus mass graph one data point for each of two dozen sports in the first half of the 20th century, it looks like this. There’s some dispersal, but it’s kind of grouped around that average body type.
Then that idea started to go away, and at the same time, digital technology — first radio, then television and the Internet — gave millions, or in some cases billions, of people a ticket to consume elite sports performance.
The financial incentives and fame and glory afforded elite athletes skyrocketed, and it tipped toward the tiny upper echelon of performance. It accelerated the artificial selection for specialized bodies. And if you plot a data point for these same two dozen sports today, it looks like this. The athletes’ bodies have gotten much more different from one another. And because this chart looks like the charts that show the expanding universe, with the galaxies flying away from one another, the scientists who discovered it call it “The Big Bang of Body Types.”
In sports where height is prized, like basketball, the tall athletes got taller. In 1983, the National Basketball Association signed a groundbreaking agreement making players partners in the league, entitled to shares of ticket revenues and television contracts.
Suddenly, anybody who could be an NBA player wanted to be, and teams started scouring the globe for the bodies that could help them win championships. Almost overnight, the proportion of men in the NBA who are at least seven feet tall doubled to 10 percent. Today, one in 10 men in the NBA is at least seven feet tall, but a seven-foot-tall man is incredibly rare in the general population — so rare that if you know an American man between the ages of 20 and 40 who is at least seven feet tall, there’s a 17 percent chance he’s in the NBA right now.
That is, find six honest seven footers, one is in the NBA right now. And that’s not the only way that NBA players’ bodies are unique. This is Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man,” the ideal proportions, with arm span equal to height. My arm span is exactly equal to my height. Yours is probably very nearly so. But not the average NBA player. The average NBA player is a shade under 6’7″, with arms that are seven feet long.
Not only are NBA players ridiculously tall, they are ludicrously long. Had Leonardo wanted to draw the Vitruvian NBA Player, he would have needed a rectangle and an ellipse, not a circle and a square.
So in sports where large size is prized, the large athletes have gotten larger. Conversely, in sports where diminutive stature is an advantage, the small athletes got smaller. The average elite female gymnast shrunk from 5’3″ to 4’9″ on average over the last 30 years, all the better for their power-to-weight ratio and for spinning in the air.
And while the large got larger and the small got smaller, the weird got weirder. The average length of the forearm of a water polo player in relation to their total arm got longer, all the better for a forceful throwing whip. And as the large got larger, small got smaller, and the weird weirder.