Thursday, September 10, 2015

Are Athletes Really Getting Faster, Better, Stronger?

In 2014, David Epstein gave a sports-minded TED talk that highlighted the ways in which athletes are becoming faster, better and stronger today. He noted many compelling examples to solidify his talk, many of which we discuss below.

Compared to the winner of the Olympic Marathon in 1904, who ran for 3 hours and twenty-eight minutes, the winner of the 2012 Olympic Marathon ran for 2 hours and eight minutes. This means that the 2012 winner is faster by nearly 1 hour and a half. It seems like we are actually evolving into a new species, one that is faster than ever. But let’s see what exactly happens.

In 1936, Jesse Owen won the 100 meters competition by running for 10.2 seconds, while Usain Bolt finished the same competition in just 9.77 seconds in 2013. Owen would have 14 feet more to go if he would have been running in 2013. In order to see exactly what this means, you can imagine both athletes running at the same time on a stadium. The two beeps that signal the finish of the race (one beep for each athlete) are so close to each other in time that they are heard almost simultaneously. If we consider the way the track was built in 1936 and in 2013, the track from 2013 offers an obvious advantage.

Technology Improvements from Triathlon to the Track

Let's now consider a longer event. In 1954, the first man to run a mile in under four minutes was Roger Bannister. Today, every college kid does it. Only in 2013, there were 1314 people running a mile under four minutes. But, just like Owens, Bannister ran on a soft surface, which is worse than the synthetic tracks of today. Biomechanics say that synthetic tracks are 1 and a half percent faster. If we take a look into the history of sports ranging from triathlon to decathlon, we can see that technology has made a difference in all sports.

Between 1956 and 2008, the 100 meter record for the freestyle swim has constantly dropped, but it has been punctuated by various changes in procedures, the addition of new features and the addition of new types of swimsuits.

Cyclists also improved their timing as bicycles became more aerodynamic. This is proven in the sport of triathlon where most athletes utilize an aero position on the bike that enables them to minimize wind resistance. But triathlon is just the tip of the iceberg. There has also been significant improvements in the level of sports science, coaching, and biomechanics.

There are many other examples that show how technology is a deciding factor for the improved performance in sports today. Another factor can be the body type, shape, and size. In the twenties, all individuals who were involved in sports had the average body size. Now, there is a different size for each type of sport.

It seems like there was an explosion in the variation of body types in sports over time, in a similar way in which the universe expanded after the Big Bang. The height of NBA players has increased over time. Today, one in seven men in the NBA is at least 7 feet tall (which is very rare in the general population). Large athletes have gotten larger (basketball) and small athletes have gotten smaller (gymnasts) in the last 30 years. Today, types of bodies that were not in sports before are becoming something common (Kenyan marathoners for instance).

Learn more about David Epstein, journalist and author of The Sports Gene.

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