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PORTSIDE  July 2012, Week 5

PORTSIDE July 2012, Week 5

Subject:

Which Records Get Shattered?

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Date:

Sun, 29 Jul 2012 12:21:44 -0400

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Which Records Get Shattered?
By Nate Silver
New York Times
July 29, 2012
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/sunday-review/why-olympic-records-are-broken-or-not.html

It's swimming that makes the biggest splash at the
Olympics these days - especially here in the United
States, where we will be disappointed if Michael Phelps
and Ryan Lochte fail to return from London with more
gold medals and more world records.

I'm partial to track and field, however. It's at the
Olympic Stadium in London where we'll see athletes
competing not just against one another, but against the
intrinsic barriers of human achievement. The runners and
jumpers and javelin-throwers will set fewer world
records than the swimmers do. But the ones they set are
more likely to survive the test of time.

Consider the men's long jump, for instance. The Olympic
record in that discipline was set more than 40 years
ago, in Mexico City, by the American Bob Beamon. About
nine months before a man landed on the moon, Beamon made
a giant leap - 29 feet two and a half inches - that has
yet to be surpassed at the Olympic Games. (Mike Lowell
beat Beamon's record at a non-Olympic meet in Tokyo in
1991, a record which itself is now more than 20 years
old.)

In another prestigious event, the women's 100-meter
dash, the world record of 10.49 seconds was set in 1988,
at the Olympic trials in Indianapolis, by Florence
Griffith-Joyner. She also set the Olympic record, 10.54
seconds, later that year in Seoul. No other woman has
come within 0.2 of a second of her Olympic mark.

Those cases are not as exceptional as you might think.
Only five track and field world records were broken at
the Beijing games in 2008 out of 47 events. And it was
actually a relatively productive Olympics by that
standard: only seven world records had been established
at the prior four games combined.

By contrast, 25 world records were set in the swimming
competition in Beijing - out of just 34 events. The
longest-standing world record in any swimming discipline
is barely more than 10 years old. It was set by Grant
Hackett in the 1,500-meter freestyle at the Australian
Championships in 2001.

In fact, the progress in swimming has followed a
predictable and almost eerie regularity, with the
winning times in most events improving at virtually
every Summer Games.

I have developed a statistical method to measure the
amount of improvement in medal-winning times in Olympic
competition between the 1968 games in Mexico City and
the 2008 games in Beijing. The method looks at the
overall trend-line in each discipline - not just the
record-setting performances, which could conceivably be
outliers.

In all 28 swimming events that have been contested
continuously since 1968, the rate of progress has been
almost exactly the same. In each discipline, times have
fallen by somewhere between 8.2 percent (in the women's
200-meter freestyle) and 12.5 percent (the women's 200-
meter breaststroke) over the 40-year period.

Track and field athletes have made nowhere near such
consistent progress - with the exception of a few
relatively obscure events like racewalking. In short-
distance running events, for instance, medal-winning
times have fallen by only about 2 percent over the 40-
year period.  Long-distance runners have made slightly
more progress - about a 6 percent improvement since 1968
- but still much less than the swimmers.

The field events that make up the other half of the
athletics completion have been a mixed bag. Although
there has been a lot of progress in the high jump and
the pole vault, the trend has actually been negative in
some other competitions. The woman who won the shot-put
competition in Beijing, Valerie Vili of New Zealand,
would not, with her tosses, have won even a bronze medal
at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

What accounts for those differences?

Part of the answer is simply that swimmers have
benefited more from technology, in the form of
everything from sleeker, computer-designed Speedos to
deeper (and, for the swimmer, less turbulent) pools. But
there is little a short-distance runner can wear to help
improve her performance much, although the Nike and
Reebok commercials might suggest otherwise.

Another factor: an athlete with the perfect swimmer's
build and a world-class work ethic would still stand
little chance of competing in this year's games if he
happened to be born in a poor nation like Cameroon or
Panama - he might never have gotten into a pool, let
alone an Olympic-size one. But running, especially over
short distances, can be practiced virtually anywhere and
anytime.

Which leads to this: As Stephen Jay Gould noted, the
more open to competition a sport is, the harder it may
be to break records or to post extraordinary statistics.
The .400 hitter disappeared in baseball once the color
barrier was broken, and black Americans and players from
Latin America were allowed to compete in the major
leagues. This raised the average level of performance -
but also made it harder for any one athlete to stand out
quite as much relative to his peers.

In the track and field events, it is more likely that an
athlete has already come close to what Gould called the
"right wall" of human performance, simply because the
human being who possessed the ideal build and work ethic
is more likely actually to have competed in the Olympic
Games.

This is not to diminish the accomplishments of Phelps or
Lochte - and I'll be rooting for them. But whatever
records they set may well be broken in Rio in 2016, if
not sooner. I wouldn't put money on anyone out-jumping
Beamon or outrunning Griffith-Joyner any time soon,
however.

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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