Higher, Faster, Stronger
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The Olympic Motto, “Citius, Altius, Fortius” is Latin for “Higher, Faster, Stronger”. This may have originally have applied to the athletes competition amongst each other, but over the past century, it can rightly be applied to modern athletes compared to their predecessors. Today’s Olympic champions are indeed jumping 30% higher, running 30% faster, and are considerably stronger than the men and women who competed in the first Modern Olympics in Athens in 1896.
Improved performance can be attributed to better diet and training, improved equipment, expanding prosperity that allows more athletes to concentrate on sports, and competitors who are simply bigger and stronger than their ancestors.
Comparing each Gold Medal winning performance over the thirty Summer Olympic Games to the baseline performance of the first time an event was contested shows a rapid improvement in strength and speed throughout the 20th Century. New Hampshire Watchdog charted the winning times and distances of thirteen track and field events for both men and women, breaking them down into Running Events, Jumping Events, and Throwing Events.
Running times have consistently improved by 30% since the first Modern Olympics. At first glance, it appears that the average speed of the 200 meter mens champion has lagged behind the other sprint and middle distance events. But the 200 meter race was not run in 1896, and runners in the four other races had each shaved 10% off their times by 1900. If you assume that the runners participating in the 200 meter race likewise improved in those four years, runners from the 100 meter to the 1500 meter all pace each other throughout the decades.
THE JOHNSON EFFECT
The steady upward climb in top speeds has leveled off somewhat over the past two decades. This plateau coincides with Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson’s disqualification in the 1998 Seoul Olympics and the sport’s increased scrutiny of illegal steroid use. The arrival of Jamaican Usain Bolt in Beijing in 2008 spiked the 100 meter and 200 meters times.
Performance in the women’s sprints matched the men’s 15% improvement from 1948 to 1988, and has seen a similar dip and rebound. Women first ran in the Olympics in 1928, but were at first not allowed to compete in many of the longer distance events. They didn’t run the 1500 meter race until 1972 in Munich. (Results for the 100 meter and 200 meter sprints in 2000 are for the Silver Medal winners, and American Marion Jones was stripped of her Sydney medals following her admission of perjury in the BALCO steroids investigation.)
Modern athletes are jumping higher and farther than the first Olympians would have thought possible, adding 30% to the best marks in the high jump, long jump, and triple jump. Two outliers shine out from the data in FIGURE 3. First, pole vaulting heights jumped 80% from 1900 to 2000, an incredible boost in human performance. This is one event where equipment clearly deserves as much praise as the jumpers. Early pole vaulters used large sticks or tree branches. Such imprecise implements were gradually replaced by wood, bamboo, metal, fiberglass, and eventually carbon fiber composites. Modern poles are lighter, allowing vaulters to approach at greater speed, as well as stronger and more flexible.
Perhaps the most remarkable statistic in the history of the Olympics was Bob Beeman’s Long Jump at the 1968 Games in Mexico City. His astounding jump of 8.9 meters, or 29 feet 2 1/2 inches, shattered the previous World Record and set a new mark that would not be broken for nearly 30 years.
Beeman’s leap has still not been topped in Olympic competition. ESPN sportswriter Bill Simmons speculates that Bolt could challenge the record if he ever applied his lightning speed to the Long Jump. Alas, modern sprinters specialize far more today than when Carl Lewis was winning medals in multiple disciplines.
Mexico City’s high altitude was a boon to track and field athletes, though it was hard on endurance runners. But the location alone does not explain the magnitude of Beeman’s jump. No other Olympian approached the World Record in Mexico City. In fact, Beeman never again approached his breath taking performance. Bob Beeman’s 1968 Long Jump remains the most dominant performance in Olympic history.
If women have managed to keep pace as men get faster, they are leaping ahead of them in Jumping Events. Despite competing in the long jump and high jump for half a century less than the guys, female Gold Medal marks have increased almost as much as male championships. Aside from Beeman’s Mexico City Miracle, male long jumpers and high jumpers are about 30% better than the turn of the last century, while female jumpers have improved 25% since 1948.
Women only started competing in the Triple Jump in 1996 and the Pole Vault in 2000, so there simply hasn’t been time to show the kind of improvements seen in other sports.
FIGURE 5- Throwing Events- Men
While runners and jumpers have been steadily pushing outward the envelope of human performance, the strongest athletes on the track have been exploding it. The discus and shot put that won Gold in Paris in 1900 flew 30% further than the winners in Athens just four years earlier. Overall, the discus record has increased an incredible 140%* since 1896. If sprinters had seen a comparable improvement, Usain Bolt would have run the 100 meters in five seconds flat.
Much of the upwards slope of Figure 5 in the discus can be credited to the legendary Al Oerter, who set Olympic records to win Gold in 1956, 1960, 1964, and 1968 Over the course of four Olympics, he improved the winning throw from just over 55 meters to nearly 65 meters, an improvement of nearly 18% from one man. Only Carl Lewis has ever matched Oerter’s run of four straights Golds in a single event, winning the Long Jump from 1984 to 1996.
Womens performance in the Throwing Events improved astronomically from 1948 to 1988, as records in shot put, javelin, and discus increased by 60%, 70%, and 80% respectively in just forty years. These meteoric rises are unmatched in any of the other sports we tracked for this report. As many of these gains have receded since 1988, cynics might suspect the infamous doping regimes of Eastern Bloc athletes are as much to blame as improved anything else. Many of those counties no longer exist, and their preferred pharmaceuticals are no longer tolerated in Olympic competition.
New Hampshire Watchdog did not attempt to track all Olympics sports. We couldn’t find a way to quantify improvements in judged sports like gymnastics and diving, or head to head sports like badminton and soccer, as easily as those events measured by a clock or a tape measure. We’re sure today’s synchronized swimmers and beach volleyball players would astonish athletes from 1896; their superior athleticism being just one reason. And anyone arguing that a basketball team featuring Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordon would lose to anyone is just being silly. Though this observation is admittedly less objective than the rest.
The various hurdling events would seem to be as easy to track as sprints, until you research just what those early hurdles were like. The technique of striding over the barriers rather than jumping over them surely improved performance, but no more so that an improved shot put release. However, comparing today’s yielding L-shaped plastic hurdles to the massive wooden barriers blocking early Olympic tracks would be fruitless. Those early hurdles probably looked more like a human steeplechase than anything being running at London’s Olympic stadium.
We also did not jump into the rough waters of Olympic swimming. Swimming at the first four Olympiads was done in open water, twice in the Mediterranean Sea. Over the years, the pools themselves have been designed to increase speed. The controversial Suit Era that peaked with the obliteration of the Olympic Record Book in Beijing is over, and yet many of the records set with the assistance of the now-banned drag-reducing suits fell in London anyway.
Likewise, we did not attempt to chart falling marathon times, which mirror improvements in the sprints. Differences in Olympic courses throws an unknown variable into our equation. Remarkably, a human being may soon complete a marathon in under two hours. The world record is just three minutes over that seemingly impossible barrier. Remember that leading physicians once thought the human body incapable of running a mile in under four minutes, just before Roger Bannister did it.
So what can we learn from more than a century of athletic improvement? First of all, it shows the incredible leverage that prize-based incentives have on performance. Think of the immense resources, public and private, that have gone into the pursuit of a few thousand Medals.
Certainly, the world’s top athletes are getting more out of the human body today than in the past. They are better fed, better trained, have better equipment, and more time to hone their skills. But they are not only higher, faster, and stronger than their predecessors. They are also smarter. They learn from pioneers like Dick Fosbury, whose decision to flop over the high jump bar backwards was the second-most remarkable achievement of the 1968 Olympics.
By building on the knowledge of each successive generation of athletes, today’s runners and jumpers are also standing on the shoulders of giants. Their record-breaking performances owe much to the innovations of past athletes. Appreciating this does not diminish the accomplishments of Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt. But it does show the powerful progress we can make through steady, incremental improvements. We can certainly apply these lessons in our less than Olympian pursuits.
*The post originally misstated this as a 240% improvement. The discus record is 240% of the baseline, or 140% further than the Gold Medal throw on 1896.
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