Why Track-And-Field Stars Don’t Set World Records Like They Used To (But Swimmers Do)


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Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt in
Berlin, Germany, in 2009. Mark
Dadswell / Getty Images

ID: 9342661

Faster, Higher, Stronger — the motto of the Olympic
Games.

But don’t expect these words to resonate in the track-and-field
stadium in Rio de Janeiro at the coming Olympic Games.
Scientific studies suggest that for most events, athletes have
for years been operating at or near a plateau of performance —
which seems to represent fundamental limits imposed by human
biology.

And in some events — notably women’s sprints and throws — the
legacy of widespread doping in the 1980s casts a long shadow
over today’s performances, and means that some world records
may never be broken.

To provide a simple guide to the likelihood of seeing
track-and-field records fall in Rio, BuzzFeed News has analyzed
data from the all-time outdoor
top performance lists published by the International
Association of Athletics Federations.

Here is a chart for the men’s 100 meters, where Jamaica’s Usain
Bolt reigned supreme in the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and in
London in 2012. In between, at a meet in Berlin in 2009, he set
the current world record of 9.58 seconds.

Men’s 100 meters

Men’s 100 meters

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The top 100 performances are
plotted as points over time, with the chart oriented so
that the best are at the top; the progression of the world
record is shown as a stepped line. Usain Bolt set the world
record of 9.58 seconds in 2009. Peter
Aldhous for BuzzFeed News / Via
iaaf.org

ID: 9341632

Given recent performances, even by the superhuman Bolt, a new
100-meters record in Rio seems unlikely. In other disciplines,
the chances of a new world-best are slimmer still. For many
events, both on the track and in the field, the world record
was set long ago, and recent performances haven’t even been
close.

Men’s javelin

Men’s javelin

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Jan Zelezný of the Czech
Republic set the world record of 98.48 meters in
1996. Peter
Aldhous for BuzzFeed News / Via
iaaf.org

ID: 9341645

One explanation is that the human body is only capable of so
much — however well athletes train and prepare.

For any race longer than a short sprint, for example, a limit
is set by how efficiently the lungs can extract oxygen from the
air. And peak oxygen consumption for modern
elite athletes isn’t much different from measurements
taken of top runners in 1937, by researchers at Harvard
University’s Fatigue Laboratory.

Still, world records for most track-and-field events continued
to be regularly broken throughout of most the 20th century.
That was probably due to training regimes that concentrated on
the right combination of speed, strength, and endurance for
each event — plus the advent of professionalism, which allowed
athletes to train harder and to have longer careers.

But statisticians who study the progression of top performances
have noticed a levelling off in recent years. In 2005, Alan
Nevill of the University of Wolverhampton in the UK and Gregory
Whyte of the English Institute of Sport calculated from
these trends that men’s middle- and long-distance running
times were probably within 3% of the limit imposed by human
biology.

Since then, researchers led by Geoffroy Berthelot of the
Institute of Biomedical Research and Sports Epidemiology in
Paris have extended the analysis to the majority of Olympic
track-and-field events. In 2015, they
concluded that most were at or near the plateau of human
performance.

One exception is the men’s marathon, where performances still
seem to be steadily improving, and where most of the top 100
times have been set in the last five years. “I think we can
find someone who can run the marathon in less than two hours,”
Berthelot told BuzzFeed News.

Men’s marathon

Men’s marathon

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Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto set the
world record of 2 hours, 2 minutes, and 57 seconds in
2014. Peter
Aldhous for BuzzFeed News / Via
iaaf.org

ID: 9341661

Michael Joyner, an exercise physiologist at the Mayo Clinic in
Rochester, Minnesota, who has
studied trends in men’s distance running, suspects the
explanation is economic. “One thing that has happened with the
marathon is big money,” he told BuzzFeed News.

In recent years, marathon events have offered large cash prizes
and appearance fees to attract the best runners on the planet.
(Back in the 1980s and 1990s, most leading distance runners
concentrated on the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, typically
switching to the marathon only in the twilight of their
careers.) Pace runners have also been used in recent marathons
to encourage rapid times.

But those factors won’t be in play in Rio, so Joyner doesn’t
expect the men’s marathon record to fall at the 2016 Olympics.

For events where athletes have reached a plateau of human
performance, new world records will be incremental and
infrequent — as happened in London on July 22, when Kendra
Harrison
shaved a hundredth of a second off a women’s 100 meters
hurdles record that had stood for 28 years. (Don’t look for a
repeat in Rio, however: Harrison’s poor performance in the US
Olympic trials means that she isn’t going to the games.)

Women’s 100 meters hurdles

Women’s 100 meters hurdles

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US hurdler Kendra Harrison set
the world record of 12.20 seconds on July 22 this year;
blue points show times set by athletes from East Germany,
where a state-sponsored doping program ran through the
1980s. Peter
Aldhous for BuzzFeed News / Via
iaaf.org

ID: 9341671

There’s a second, darker reason for the dearth of recent world
records.

Steroid use in track-and-field athletics exploded in the 1980s,
before drug testing became as sophisticated and rigorous as it
is today. Apart from the few athletes who were caught — notably
Canada’s Ben Johnson, disqualified after testing positive for
stanozolol after winning the 100 meters at the 1988 Seoul
Olympics — nobody knows for sure which athletes doped and which
performed clean.

Still, two well-documented state-sponsored programs provide a
partial view of how doping has distorted track and field.
According to an
independent report commissioned by the World Anti-Doping
Agency released on July 18, Russian authorities ran a doping
program from late 2011 onwards, with positive results being
swept under the rug by the national testing laboratory in
Moscow.

Even this malfeasance pales beside the massive doping program
that ran in East Germany until the collapse of the Communist
state. Often without their knowledge, athletes were given
“vitamin” pills that were really massive doses of steroids.
Many later reported health problems. Andreas Krieger,
who competed in shot put for the East German team as Heidi
Krieger, later had gender reassignment surgery and
complained of chronic pain in his hips and thighs.

The program’s full extent was revealed in
the 1990s by biologist Werner Franke of the German Cancer
Research Center in Heidelberg and his wife, Brigitte Berendonk,
who competed in the discus for West Germany. They found
meticulous records of systematic doping in files held by the
Stasi, East Germany’s notorious secret police.

Performance records for women’s sprints and throws show how
dominant East German athletes were at the doping program’s
height — and how contemporary performances have fallen away
from the marks set in the 1980s.

Women’s discus

Women’s discus

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Gabriele Reinsch of East
Germany set the world record of 76.80 meters in 1988;
performances by East German athletes shown in blue.
Peter
Aldhous for BuzzFeed News / Via
iaaf.org

ID: 9341679

Women’s 400 meters

Women’s 400 meters

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East Germany’s Marita Koch set
the world record of 47.60 seconds in 1985; times for East
German athletes shown in blue, those by Russian athletes
during its recent doping program in red.

Peter Aldhous for BuzzFeed News / Via
iaaf.org

ID: 9341682

Judging from recent performances by Russian athletes, that
nation’s modern doping program had nothing like the impact of
its East German predecessor. Indeed, with today’s frequent
testing and “biological
passports” — which monitor athletes’ blood for subtle signs
of the way in which the human body responds to doping —
scientists say it would be impossible to repeat the widespread
abuse of the 1980s.

“The era of industrial-strength doping is over,” Joyner said.
“There’s only so much cloak-and-dagger that they can do.”

Given the human body’s limits, the best hope for big leaps in
performance lies with developments in technology. After
flexible fiberglass poles were introduced in the 1950s, pole
vault performances soared. And when dirt running tracks were
replaced by synthetic materials in the 1960s, runners’ times
improved by about 3%, Joyner said.

Indeed, technological improvements seem to explain why records
in swimming were all set relatively recently, in marked
contrast to track and field.

When today’s records were set

When today’s records were set

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Each point represents a world
record, positioned according to the year in which it was
set. Chart shows Olympic events, and for track-and-field
outdoor records only. Although many track-and-field records
date from more than two decades ago, records for Olympic
swimming events were all set after 2008.

Peter Aldhous for BuzzFeed News / Via IAAF and FINA, the
international swimming federation

ID: 9341688

Swimming times depend crucially on the drag that water imposes
on the human body. And in recent years, pool designers have
worked hard to promote fast times, preventing the turbulence
created by swimmers from interfering with their progress.

“The waves that are created by the swimmers have been reduced
significantly by the design of the pools and the lane
dividers,” the University of Wolverhampton’s Nevill told
BuzzFeed News.

Swimsuit design is also crucial: The glut of world records in
2009 followed the introduction of all-body polyurethane suits,
which dramatically reduced drag in the water and improved
buoyancy — they
were banned in January 2010.

View this image ›

American Olympic medalists
Amanda Beard (left), Michael Phelps (center), and Natalie
Coughlin (right) pose in Speedo “LZR Racer”
swimsuits. Kathy
Willens / ASSOCIATED PRESS

ID: 9342663

But if track and field is your thing, where are the best
chances for a world record in Rio?

Some women’s events were added to the Olympic roster fairly
recently, and don’t yet seem to have reached the plateau of
performance that has becalmed world records in other events. In
the women’s hammer, for instance, Poland’s Anita Wlodarczyk is
definitely worth watching.

Women’s hammer

Women’s hammer

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Anita Wlodarczyk of Poland set
the world record of 81.08 meters in 2015.
Peter
Aldhous for BuzzFeed News / Via
iaaf.org

ID: 9341709

Apart from these events, the best hope for a new world record
in Rio lies with truly exceptional performers, such as
Portland’s Ashton Eaton, who has twice set world records in the
decathlon — which provides the ultimate test of all-round
athletic ability.

Men’s decathlon

Men’s decathlon

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Ashton Eaton of the US set the
world record of 9,045 points in 2015. Peter
Aldhous for BuzzFeed News / Via
iaaf.org

ID: 9341720

Interested in other events? Take your pick.

View this embed ›

All charts show outdoor
performances only. Peter
Aldhous for BuzzFeed News / Via
iaaf.org

ID: 9341808

CORRECTION

This story has been updated to clarify that the
track-and-field performances shown are for outdoor events
only. An earlier version showed a chart for the pole
vault, highlighting Sergey Bubka’s 1993 outdoor record of
6.14 meters. That record was beaten at an indoor meet by
Renaud Lavillenie of France, who cleared 6.16 meters in
2014.

ID: 9344346



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