In 2000, new swimsuits were introduced and these continued to adapt until around 2009. Performance improved so much because of these suits that as of 1st January 2010, the ruling body banned them.
Professor Steve Haake
A study from Sheffield Hallam University has revealed that today’s sprinters are the best ever. Professor Steve Haake, Director of Sheffield’s Centre for Sports Engineering, developed a ‘performance-improvement index’ to investigate the rates at which athletes in different sports are improving. Although he discovered that performance in some events – such as javelin and swimming – has either plateaud or declined, he found that athletes competing in the men’s 100m have become faster since the mid-1970s.
These trends, however, are not solely connected to the abilities of competing athletes. Swimmers, for example, broke an unprecedented number of world records in 2008 and 2009, largely because of full-body swimsuits that have since been banned. Similarly, javelins were modified during the mid-1980s to make them land on their tips, and this had the effect of reducing throwing distances by an average of 9m. Sprinting times, on the other hand, have improved since the mid-1970s along with the advent of fully automated timing.
I spoke to Professor Haake to find out more about the events that we should look out for during the upcoming London 2012 Olympic Games. I began by asking where the inspiration for the performance-improvement index came from.
"As sports engineers, it’s our role to improve performance through technology and engineering," he replied. "We asked ourselves, ‘Does technology actually improve performance?’ We can show in a lab that tennis racket x
is better than tennis racket y
, or that shoe x
is better than shoe y
. However, we felt that the proof would be in the pudding, or in this case, the performance stats. We looked at all of the male and female track and field data going back to the 1890s, and we compiled lists of the top 25 athletes in each year. We then started to do comparisons. We found that the 100m sprint, for example, improved by about 10 per cent over that period. That is around one second in 10. We then investigated performance in the pole vault, the records for which have jumped from 30m to 90m. That’s an improvement of 200 per cent over the same period, and we thought, ‘That doesn’t seem right.’
"However, we then looked at the measures. One involves time and the other involves distance so we had to ask whether we could actually compare the two in terms of percentages? What should we have been looking at? That’s when we came up with the performance-improvement index, which is actually based upon the energy expended in the particular sports. The index uses an energy measure with the baseline of a specific date. This allows us to normalise data according to the performance during a specific year."
The researchers were able to use their index to measure performance improvement and deterioration across different athletic events. I asked Professor Haake whether any of the trends that they had identified had come as a surprise.
"One of our most surprising findings was that athletic performance seems to be levelling off in all sports," he explained. "Around 1948, performance was improving quite rapidly but in 2010, it really levelled off. You see little jumps, spikes and step changes, and you wonder, ‘What is that due to?’ One good example is the 2008 men’s 100m sprint. There was a sudden improvement of 1.4 per cent and this coincided with Usain Bolt’s arrival at the Beijing Olympics. Immediately, we assumed that Bolt was responsible for this spike, but then we remembered that the data covered the top 25 performances of that year. When we took Bolt out of the equation and looked at the remaining 24 athletes, we found the same step change.
"This shows us that there is a new cohort of athletes that appeared in that year, who are all competing against one another. The reasons behind the improvement are of course open to speculation. It could be genetics, it could be the support of sports science, it could be their coaching methods, it could be peer pressure – it could be any number of things.
Automated timing systems introduced in the mid-1970s resulted in an apparent 'deterioration' across 100m sprint times
"Another interesting finding was that during the 1970s, we saw a negative step change of about three per cent in 100m sprint performances. Now this is quite large, and it turned out to be due to the introduction of fully automated timing. Because this method was much more accurate than the use of the traditional stopwatch, performances ‘deteriorated’. More accurate timing systems made the athletes look as though they were running slower than before."
I asked Professor Haake whether the performance-improvement index could be used to identify likely drug misuse within athletics.
"You could look at that," he replied. "However, on an individual level, this would probably not be effective. If you tracked a single person’s performance over the years, you could pick out unusual step changes that were marginally different from others. You might be able to surmise that something was going on, but there are all sorts of reasons behind improved performance. It might be more effective to conduct physiological measurements, to be honest."
Despite finding that the current crop of sprinters is the best that the world has ever seen, the study did show that other events – such as javelin and swimming – had plateaud and even deteriorated. I asked Professor Haake whether or not his research implied that new world records within these events were a thing of the past.
"Yes, I think that they might be," he replied. "Performance within the javelin dropped quite dramatically during the 1980s because of a rule change intended to prevent competitors from throwing too far. Actually, this wasn’t the main reason. If you watched athletes throwing previous javelin iterations during that period, you would notice that they used to land horizontally. By shifting the centre of mass forwards, javelin manufacturers were able to ensure that tips stuck into the ground on landing. The final straw, however, came when an East German athlete threw 104m. When javelins begin landing on the track, it starts to get dangerous. The subsequent reduction in performance due to equipment means that you’re unlikely to return to throws in excess of 104m. Things have really levelled off in men’s javelin.
"In 2000, new swimsuits were introduced and these continued to adapt until around 2009. Performance improved so much because of these suits that as of 1st
January 2010, the ruling body banned them. The performance-improvement index highlighted quite a dramatic improvement, for example, in the women’s 100m freestyle. The 2008 suits improved performance by about five per cent, and by a further two per cent in 2009. This means that by the time the suits were banned in 2010, we had seen a six to eight per cent improvement in performance. It isn’t impossible, but it’s going to take some years to regain that eight per cent. We probably won’t see any world records in swimming sprint events at London 2012."
The opening ceremony of the London Olympics will take place one week from today, and sporting excitement is almost at fever pitch. I asked Professor Haake whether any events other
than the men’s 100m were likely to result in world records.
"There is always the chance that middle and long distance running events could produce records," he explained. "Going back to the swimming, you might see some records in events over longer distances because they weren’t affected quite so much by the swimsuits that we spoke about earlier. There are also other swimming technologies like new goggles and hats that claim to offer dramatic improvements. We might see some other world records here."
I concluded our conversation by asking whether or not Professor Haake and his colleagues had any further research planned in this area.
"Well yes," he said. "We have obtained data from track, field and some winter sports. We would like to collect some cycling data but that can be quite difficult to do. Tracks have changed so much over the years that there isn’t really a consistent velodrome to look at. However, we are going to be examining areas that we believe have seen little improvement, and we will be looking at the factors that limit performance."