Are Athletes Really Getting Faster, Better, Stronger?

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The debate is as old as physical competition. Are stars like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, and Serena Williams genetic freaks put on Earth to dominate their respective sports? Or are they simply normal people who overcame their biological limits through sheer force of will and obsessive training?

The Olympic motto is “Faster, Higher, Stronger”, and over time our Olympic records are getting better. However, Dr. David Epstein is investigating why: the technological and training drivers.

100m Sprint: Jesse Owens won the 1936 Olympics in 10.2 seconds, but would have come last in the 2013 race where Usain Bolt set his record of 9.77 seconds. The human race has not evolved over this time, but technology is supporting them: for example, Owens ran on a soft surface of wood ash (cinders), which would have made him lose a lot more energy than Usain’s engineered carpet. Likewise, Usain ran from starting blocks, while Owens used a trowel to dig small holes in the surface. By analyzing Owens’ movements, it is believed if he competed directly against Usain Bolt on the same surface, he would have come within a stride of victory, instead of being 14ft slower.

4 Minute Mile: The first man to run a 4 minute mile was in 1954, also on cinders (soft wood ash). Since then 1,314 have run a 4 minute mile, but the cinders are 1.5% slower than synthetic tracks. If you apply this conversion, only 513 men have run 4 minute miles.

100m Freestyle: The record is decreasing over time, but there were sudden drops in time caused by the introduction of flip turns, gutters around the pool to absorb ripples, and the introduction of full-body swimsuits.

Longest Distance Cycled in an Hour: Has increased from 30 miles, 3,774 feet in 1972 more than 35 miles in 1996. However, the 1996 bike was aerodynamic and much better engineered. When the rules were changed to force everyone to use a similar bike to what was used in 1972, the new record stands at 30 miles 4,657ft – not much further than 1972. Essentially the whole gain was from technological gain.

Selection of Athletes: In the early 20th century it was believed that the most normal, average body type was best suited for all sports. Since then sports scientists revealed different body shapes were stronger in different sports, resulting in each sport having a certain type of people competing. This coincided with more people wanting to join in on the sports, making a wider range of people available to choose from, and therefore more people able to fit into the perfect body for the sport. This has been called the ‘Big Bang of Bodytypes’. Specialization has concentrated people into these sports for example 1 in 6 men taller than 7ft are in the NBA. In sports where large bodies are prized, the athletes got bigger. Likewise, sports preferring smaller bodies got them.

Ultra-endurance: There was a time when it was believed that ultra-endurance was harmful to our health. However, as we analyzed our bodies, we found they were hairless and easily cooled, and muscle structures made us well adapted to long runs. Recently Kilian Jornet ran up and down the Matterhorn (8,000ft) in under 3 hours, but he is not a freak. More people will do the same in the future, now that we have changed our mindset about what is possible.

With new technology, body type adaptation, mindset, imagination, and understanding of what the human body is capable of, athletes have been getting faster, higher, stronger.

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David Epstein is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance.

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