Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why do Athletes Keep Getting Better?

Faster Higher Stronger is the motto of the Olympics. Olympic records show that athletes have achieved just that. 3 hours 28 minutes was enough to win the marathon in 1904, whereas you had to beat 2 hours 8 minutes to win in 2012. Are such gains attributable to better nutrition, training, or perhaps performance-enhancing drugs? That’s probably what most people think.

Epstein presented research to show that much of the gain comes from the technology and science of sport. In 1936, Jesse Owens won the 100 metres race in 10.2 seconds.  He would have come last by a large margin, in the race that Bolt won in 2013 in a time of 9.77 seconds. However, Epstein argues you have to take into consideration the advances in track surface technology compared to the cinder track Owens ran on. And Bolt was starting from specially engineered blocks, whereas Owens dug out a small indentation in the cinders with his trowel. Trying to account for these differences, Owens would have come a close second to Bolt!

Investigative journalist David Epstein has written about the dark side of sports, how players gain unfair advantages with various methods. But this talk focused on how technology has made such a different. He showed a chart of record times for the 100M freestyle, showing a steady decline in records for this distance. But the biggest factors had nothing to do with the swimmer, and everything to do with technology: in 1956, with the introduction of the flip turn; in 1976, when gutters on pool edge reduced water turbulence; and in 2008, when full body suits were introduced.

Back in 1972 Eddie Merkx set a record for the longest distance cycled in 1 hour:  30 miles, 3,774 feet. Recently the record was 35 miles, 1,531 feet, an astonishing improvement. However, riding with 1972 technology the record would only be 30 miles 4,657 feet when using 1972 technology, not very impressive at all. Despite the publicity about doping in this sport, the greatest gains have come from bicycle technology, Epstein argues.

Epstein also points to body specialization as a big factor in athletic success. In the 1920s, it was believed that there was an optimum athletic body, and that conformation was appropriate for all sports. High jumpers had the same build as the shot putters. Now, shot putters are 2 ½” taller than high jumpers and 130 pounds heavier. Michael Phelps' body is optimally shaped for swimming, a big factor in him becoming the world's fastest swimmer.

This ‘big bang’ disruption in body types is very obvious in the NBA, where fully 10% of the players are over 7’. But Epstein’s most amazing statistic was that of all the 7 footers in the US, 17% of them are in the NBA. Forbes pondered whether being 7' tall is the quickest path to being rich.

An interesting talk that had everyone buzzing during the break.

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