Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Why Are Sporting Records Always Being Broken?

By Tim Olds

Better technology, training methods and financial rewards only partly explain why athletes continue to get faster and stronger.

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I published my first scientific paper, a mathematical model of cycling performance, in 1994. Using some mighty complex equations, I predicted with confidence that no cyclist would ever cover more than 55 km in an hour. Two days after the paper was published, the Swiss rider Tony Rominger broke the hour record. He covered 55.3 km.

Thinking that exercise science may not be my calling, I turned to historical trends in overweight and obesity in children. Based on an analysis of historical data on hundreds of thousands of children, I predicted that we were heading for an exponential rise in overweight and obesity in children. That was in 1996, the exact year in which childhood obesity plateaued. It hasn’t risen since.

I should have twigged to this. “Those who have knowledge, don't predict. Those who predict, don't have knowledge” (Lao Tzu). But since the Olympics are approaching, I’m going to dip my toe again into the treacherous waters of prediction, and reflect on why sporting records are constantly being broken.

There are lots of good technological reasons. Running tracks are designed to better return the elastic energy stored when the foot strikes the ground, and running shoes better return the energy that was previously wasted when the shoes were deformed as they hit the ground.

Faster swimming pools have just the right depth and shape, side...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.