Racing towards our limits: Men’s Olympic record progression on the track

Author: Gavin Thompson

British athlete Goldie Sayers broke her British record in the Javelin on the weekend in a perfect warm-up ahead of the Olympics, and today, Gavin Thompson charts the progress in records since 1908 in our continuing series of extracts from the upcoming book, Olympic Britain. Olympic Britain shows through statistics the changing face of Britain since the previous London Olympics of 1908 and 1948.

If today’s athletes were to have competed in 1908 London Games, they would have appeared superhuman. The winner of the men’s 5,000m in Beijing 2008 ran at a pace that would have won the 1,500m in 1908, while the winner of the women’s marathon would have won the 1908 men’s race by half an hour.

What explains this enormous leap in human physical achievement? In short, the development and availability of training facilities, technological and medical advances, and the application of sport science have enabled an increasingly professionalised body of athletes to reach their potential. Meanwhile, the growth in participation among Asian and African countries, and the development of similar organisations, competition calendars and regulations among nations, has increased competitiveness.

Political factors have had an effect on record development over the years. Few men’s records were set at the Olympics immediately following the World Wars (1920 and 1948), as casualties limited the number of available male contenders and training regimes were disrupted. Famous boycotts by the US and USSR in 1980 and 1984 respectively hindered record progression at these Games.

Location has played a role too. In the 1968 Olympics at Mexico City, the high altitude produced a slew of new short-distance records and a long-jump of 8.90m that remains the longest-standing Olympic record, but inhibited performance over longer distances. Before World War II, 80% of world records were set by athletes running in their native country; now that world travel is less arduous, athletes can compete at their best wherever they are in the world: today, fewer than a quarter of records are set ‘at home’.

‘Nothing is impossible’, runs the cliché. But there are clearly limits on human capabilities. And a host of academic studies insist that performances gains have stagnated since 1988. Nonetheless, with four world and six Olympic records broken on the track alone at Beijing in 2008, expectations will remain high that human speed and endurance can be pushed to still dizzier heights at London 2012.

Ever faster. The chart shows the average speed run, in mph, to achieve Olympic  men's records at each distance since 1908. Kinks in the line indicate new records at that Olympics. The records themselves in 1908 and as they stand currently are also shown.

Ever faster. The chart shows the average speed run, in mph, to achieve Olympic men's records at each distance since 1908. Kinks in the line indicate new records at that Olympics. The records themselves in 1908 and as they stand currently are also shown.

This article is taken from Olympic Britain, a forthcoming book from the House of Commons Library. It tells the story of the profound economic and social change in the UK since the two previous London Olympics, in 1908 and 1948, using statistics and expert analysis. It will be published on 9 July and digital copies will be freely available on the Parliament website.

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Míċeál

Can the two-hour marathon ever be achieved?

The men’s world record times in hours (y) since 1908 (x) can be modelled as

y = 1.942 + 0.983exp{-0.019(x-1900)}

with an R-square value of 97%.

Extrapolation indicates that by the year 2047, the two-hour barrier for the marathon could be broken by just under 2 seconds

The source of the raw data used to derive the above model is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marathon_world_record_progression#Men.

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