David Epstein is an investigative reporter who covers the wide-open space where sports, science and medicine overlap….
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: David Epstein_ Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger_
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.