Olympic Records Over Time

As an Olympics junkie, I was pretty thrilled to see this interactive feature from Slate making the rounds yesterday. For the men’s and women’s competitions in four Olympic events (100m dash, discus, long jump, 100m freestyle swim) it lines up eight gold medalists going back through time and animates their performances. So, for example, you can watch Jesse Owens (who won the 1936 100m sprint in 10.3 seconds) struggle to keep up with Usain Bolt (9.69 four years ago in Beijing).

The feature can be mildly addictive, and it becomes instantly apparent that (surprise!) athletes have become faster and stronger over time. With a few notable deviations… First, Bob Beamon’s long jump in Mexico City is still astounding, better than runner-up Carl Lewis (1988) on this feature by over half a foot and, forty years later, still nearly two feet longer than Irving Saladino’s winning leap in Beijing.

Of course, Beamon was aided by Mexico City’s altitude (and somewhat by wind, though not enough to void the record). Likewise, Wilma Rudolph’s 100m sprint at Rome (1960) was wind-aided, so her mark (11.0 seconds) wasn’t eligible for the Olympic or World record. But it would have earned her a gold medal in half of the succeeding Olympics (1964, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, 2000) and a silver medal in 1984, the year Evelyn Ashford finally bested Rudolph’s time.

On the women’s side of the Olympic athletics record book, the 1988 Games in Seoul also saw a pair of performances by legendary athletes that have stood the test of time: Florence Griffith-Joyner’s 10.54 time in the 100m (which shaved nearly half a second off Ashford’s record) and Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s long jump, which improved on an eight-year old record by over a foot and has yet to be surpassed (or even approached).

But those exceptions notwithstanding… All this had me wondering just how drastically Olympic athletes have been able to improve their performance over time. Which records have changed the most?

I’m glad you asked! Let’s start with track and field, limiting ourselves (somewhat artificially) to events that were held the first time London hosted the Olympics, in 1908. (That cuts out some earlier Olympiads that skew the results because of inaccurate timing, shoddy facilities, inconsistent distances, and, well, unremarkable performances.) For each, I’ll compare the Olympic record (OR) at the end of the 1908 games with the OR as it stood coming out of Beijing, arranging them from greatest to least change over time: (distances/times courtesy of the Olympics section at DatabaseSports.com)

Men’s Event

OR after 1908

OR after 2008

Change

Discus

40.89m

69.89m

70.9%

Javelin Throw

53.69m

90.57m

68.7%

Hammer Throw

51.92m

84.8m

63.3%

Pole Vault

3.71m

5.96m

60.7%

Shot Put

14.81m

22.47m

51.7%

Marathon

2:51:23

2:06:32

26.2%

High Jump

1.9m

2.39m

25.8%

Triple Jump

14.92m

18.09m

21.3%

Long Jump

7.48m

8.9m

19.0%

400m Hurdles Men

55.0

46.78

15.0%

110m Hurdles Men

15.0

12.91

13.9%

1500m Run Men

4:03.4

3:32.07

12.9%

200m Sprint Men

21.6

19.3

10.7%

100m Sprint Men

10.8

9.69

10.3%

400m Run Men

48.4

43.49

10.1%

800m Run Men

1:52.8

1:42.58

9.1%

I’m not enough of an expert to be able to explain just why the throwing/putting events have seen so much more improvement over the decades, though I’m sure it has to do with better conditioning and technique (or, in the case of the pole vault, equipment) — and perhaps artificial enhancements. (Anabolic steroids, for example, weren’t banned in the Olympics until 1975, more than two decades after first being synthesized.)

Henry Taylor
Henry Taylor, winner of the 400m and 1500m freestyle swims at the 1908 London Olympics – UK National Archives

What’s most interesting is that the record evolved quite differently in the events with the most marked differences. The biggest jump in the discus record for this timeline happened right away, with the 1912 winner (Armas Taipale of Finland) smashing the 1908 record by over four meters; later improvements were quite incremental, rarely more than 1-2m. (You can watch the evolution of these records at the official Olympics site. Here’s the discus, for example.) In javelin, on the other hand, the record increased by over 6 meters from 1928 to 1932 and then nearly 12 meters from 1952 to 1956.

The jumping and running events, on the other hand, make it seem like the differences between the athletes of the early 20th and early 21st centuries are not actually so enormous. The gap in records is clearly more pronounced over longer distances; the 5000m and 10,000m runs were added at Stockholm in 1912, and have seen records improve by 15.5% and 16.9%, respectively. (The 3000m steeplechase appeared in 1920 for the first time, with elite athletes now running it over 21% faster than at Antwerp.) In the sprints that draw more attention from Americans, the margins are tighter: which is perhaps why a Usain Bolt is so amazing (while he only shaved 1.5% off Donovan Bailey’s twelve year old record, those 0.15 seconds marked the biggest change in the record in over forty years).

But the story is different in the pool, where even sprints have become dramatically faster over the years and decades:

Event

OR after 1908

OR after 2008

Change

100m Backstroke

1:24.6

52.54

37.9%

1500m Freestyle

22:48.4

14:40.84

35.6%

400m Free Men

5:36.8

3:40.59

34.5%

200m Breaststroke

3:09.2

2:07.64

32.5%

100m Free

1:05.6

47.21

28.0%

Here, it seems harder to compare, since there have been significant recent advances in swimwear and even the design of swimming pools that serve to shrink times. (Only two Olympic records survived the 2008 competition in Beijing’s National Aquatics Center.) If Michael Phelps could time-travel back to 1972 and swim in the Munich pool, would he actually have beat Mark Spitz by nearly four seconds in the 100m butterfly (about 7% faster, in relative terms) and ten seconds in the 200m free (9% faster)?

For women… We’ll go back to the track and compare to the last time London hosted (1948), since it added three field events (shot put, discus, long jump) to the four athletics competitions (javelin, high jump, and the two sprints) that had been around since the interwar era. (Then it would take decades more to add medium- and long-distance runs, additional field events like pole vault, hammer throw, and triple jump, and the heptathlon.)

Women’s Event

OR after 1948

OR after 2008

Change

Shot Put

13.75m

22.41m

63.0%

Javelin Throw

45.57m

71.53m

57.0%

Discus Throw

47.63m

72.3m

51.8%

Long Jump

5.69m

7.4m

30.1%

High Jump

1.68m

2.06m

22.6%

200m Sprint

25.3

21.34

15.7%

100m Sprint

11.9

10.62

10.8%

This roughly mirrors the men’s table: more dramatic change in throws, somewhat less in jumps, and least in sprints. For a different kind of comparison, here’s the percentage change in record for both women and men in the same events over the period 1948-2008:

Event

Women’s Change

Men’s Change

Shot Put

63.0%

31.3%

Javelin Throw

57.0%

24.6%

Discus Throw

51.8%

32.4%

Long Jump

30.1%

10.4%

High Jump

22.6%

17.8%

200m Sprint

15.7%

6.8%

100m Sprint

10.8%

5.9%


2 thoughts on “Olympic Records Over Time

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