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.

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 walls and extra unused lanes to eliminate reflected currents, as well as energy-absorbing lane dividers and gutters.

Velodromes have smoother surfaces, optimal banking and protection from headwinds, while cyclists wear super-streamlined body suits and helmets and ride ultra-light, ultra-rigid bikes.

Powerlifters use special reinforcing “bench shirts” that can add 150 kg to their bench presses.

Training has also improved. Weight training was rarely used before the mid-1960s by sprinters, who believed that muscularity would slow them down. If you look at photographs of sprinters from the 1960 Rome Olympics in Tanner’s The Physique of the Olympic Athlete, you’ll find physiques that today would be sneered at in any suburban gym.

Athletes are also taking performance-enhancing supplements, both legal and illegal. The world bench press record, for example, has increased from 165 kg in 1916 to 500 kg in 2013. I’m sure you wouldn’t call me cynical if I thought that hasn’t all come about naturally.

But one factor that contributes as much as anything to world record is hardly ever mentioned: there are just more people in the world, and therefore more super-athletes. To understand the effect that the size of the population has on sporting records, consider the case of Miguel “Big Mig” Indurain. One of the greatest cyclists of all time, five times winner of the Tour de France and holder of the world hour record, Indurain had a maximal aerobic power of 88 mL O2 per kilogram of bodyweight per minute. The average for young men is about 51, with a standard deviation of 7. This means that the chances of a randomly chosen young man having an aerobic power as high or higher than Big Mig’s would be about 1 in ten million.

About 12% of the world’s current population of 7.1 billion is in the 20–35 age range. Some of those young men would not be available for various reasons — they may live in inaccessible areas, or already be involved in other sports, or be making a very nice living doing other things. Let’s say 50% of them are available to train as Tour de France cyclists. This would mean there would be just 47 people in the whole world who could be cyclists of the calibre of Big Mig.

Now let’s wind the clock back 50 years, to 1966. The world’s population was 3.4 billion. Because we didn’t have the same communications networks, because the world was less globalised, because the financial rewards from sport were not as great, let’s assume that only 25% of potential super-athletes would be available for training. This would mean that there would only be 11 people in the world with an aerobic power comparable to Indurain’s who would be potential Tour cyclists.

So in 2016 we have 47 men with the requisite aerobic power, while in 1966 we had 11. That gives us an extra 36 men who might have superior psychological toughness, or tactical ability, or may be less prone to injury, and will therefore be better cyclists.

To look at it another way, of the top 47 athletes in the world – that’s the number available in 2016 — what would the aerobic power be in 1966? The answer is 85.9 mL O2 per kilogram per minute compared with 88 for Indurain. That’s 2.4% less, which translates to an hour record that’s about 1 km less, other things being equal.

I’m certainly not going to make a prediction about the hour record — don’t say I haven’t learnt my lesson — but I will go out on a limb and say we will not see a new 100 metre men’s world record in Rio. Usain Bolt’s time of 9.58 seconds set in 2009 should, if a simple linear extrapolation is to be believed, stand until 2028.

If I’m wrong, I’ll just give up this numbers business and take up gender studies instead.

Professor Tim Olds leads the Health and Use of Time Group at the Sansom Institute for Health Research, University of South Australia.