Why do Olympic records keep getting broken?

Over at Discovery News, Emily Sohn asks the question I've been wondering for the last two weeks. Why are Olympians today better at their sports than Olympians of the past? Why do speed records keep getting broken? Why can gymnasts do more elaborate routines?

I mean, I have plenty of reasonable, speculative answers for those questions. But I hadn't seen them addressed in a factual way. This is great. And fascinating.

The answer, experts say, involves a combination of incremental technological improvements, as well as a growing population of people attempting a larger variety of sports that they start earlier and stick with longer. The mind plays a big role, too, especially when it comes to toppling seemingly insurmountable barriers, like the four-minute mile of the past or the two-hour marathon of the future.

"There is almost certainly a species limit in terms of physical capabilities, and I suspect we might be in the range of that," said Carl Foster, an exercise physiologist at the University of Wisconsin, Lacrosse. "But every time scientists say humans are not going to go any faster, they've been shown to be wrong. You can take that one to the bank."

Through calculations of maximum power output, oxygen use, heart function and other factors, some researchers have attempted to predict what the absolute limits of human ability will be. Much-debated estimates include 1:58 for the marathon (a five-minute improvement over the current men's record of 2:03.38), and 9.48 for the men's 100m.

Read the rest at Discovery News



  1. If Sheldrake’s hypothesis of morphic resonance/morphic fields were the cause of such changes in athletic potential, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised. Lo!

  2. Because technological advantages like equipment, training facilities and, of course, drugs continually improve.

    But of course the Olympics are pure, natural and *snicker* amateur, so we don’t talk about that.

        1. The trouble is, allowing, say, steroids would effectively make them a requirement in order to compete at professional levels – it being very hard for a non-chemically-enhanced performer to match the results.  Effectively this bans people who don’t want to do long-term damage to themselves from the top tier of the game.

          Could we have steroid- and non-steroid leagues for top sports?

    1. Considering the fact that it’s easier to catch athletes who use pretty subtle ways to increase their advantage, I’d say it’s unlikely that the drugs are actually making athletes faster than earlier drugs were. It’s certainly not clean, but I’d imagine it’s just about impossible to use as powerful drugs as they had twenty years ago and still get away with it.

  3. I think the explanation I’ve always had in my head is that it’s simply asymptotic – that way we can keep breaking records for infinity, while still staying within a firmly bounded limit.  I’m a little surprised that possibility wasn’t entertained in the article.

    1. Could be, based on that as more and more of the competitors get close to the same time/distance/whatever one add a extra zero or similar to the measures to figure out first, second and third.

      1. Like mocon said above – if you have to dig far into the decimals to pick a winner, they should be willing to concede that it’s effectively a tie. At least to my tastes, it would seem more “fair” (admittedly a difficult word to pin down precisely) to use an increased number of events to resolve a single winner instead of ever-increasing accuracy in time-taking.

  4. One of the core elements of evolution and natural selection is the inherent diversity of each species. Normally the diversity is balanced by the selection process, meaning that only those narrowly suited for a specific environment get to live and everyone else is dead. On the other hand, humanity has achieved extreme technological advances which push back against natural selection, meaning people who would have died in generations past flourish today. 

    With selection pressures minimized, diversity within a species is more visible. Look at dogs, for example. We minimized their selection pressures and maximized their diversity. Dogs now have a wider range of running speeds than their ancestors. 

    It’s true that humans aren’t bred like dogs are, but the natural diversity is still there. So long as our population continues to grow in numbers, diversity will increase and records will continue to be broken in every sport.

  5. I think the more interesting question is why so many of the women’s track and field records haven’t been broken since the ’80s compared to the men’s records.  Women athletes have received more and better training, more sponsorship, and more publicity than years past, yet the old records remain. 

    The U.S. 4 x 100m relay just broke a world record that was set in 1985 (27 years ago!) by East Germany.   Better testing for doping may be the reason.   But it’s still a valid question.

      1. Would not surprise me. Those games has always been about national pride, and even more so during the cold war.

  6. Whats interesting is why some records aren’t being broken. Men’s long jump for example, the record hasn’t been broken in over 20 years since Powell set it in ’91, and that jump in itself broke a record drought of over 20 years since 1968.

    So perhaps a clue to answer your question is, why are some sports consistently progressing records, while others aren’t?

  7. Is it possible that earlier athletes were not the strongest or the fastest on the planet, just more financially able to compete locally and internationally?    

    1. That has to be true to some extent even today. Surely there have to be some non-westerners who would be capable of beating the cyclists if they had the motivation, funding and training?

  8. Just for the record… if the difference between first place and fourth place is less than a tenth of a second, that’s a four-way tie.

  9. The BBC did an interesting piece on drugs in sports and said that the longest standing Olympic records are mostly in the Women’s Track events due to the massive drug issues of the 80’s an no woman seems capable of reaching those heights in the last 20 years because of it..

    just an interesting tit-bit.

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