Olympic Records Over Time (Winter Edition)

The day the 2012 Summer Olympics opened in London, I wrote a post exploring how Olympic records had changed over time. Over the course of a century (from the 1908 London Olympics to 2008 in Beijing), I found that athletes in track and field and swimming had significantly improved performance. While that’s not surprising, it was striking to see the variety in results — while all of the throwing events (discus, shot put, javelin, hammer) had seen improvements of 50% or higher, runners had gained relatively little over time (9-10% in the sprints and medium-distance runs up to 26% for the marathon).

So what about winter sports? Have athletes made similar gains on ice and snow in the ninety years since the Winter games began at Chamonix, France?

Claudia Pechstein
The most decorated woman in Olympic speed skating, Germany’s Claudia Pechstein – Creative Commons (Bjarte Hetland)

It’s not as easy to compare. Many of those sports are evaluated subjectively (e.g., figure skating), with scoring systems that change over time. Others have variable distance and conditions (e.g., Alpine skiing). But a few men’s events have been around since 1924 and permit comparisons like those I attempted for London:

Winter Olympic Event

OR in 1924

OR by 2014

Change

50km cross-country skiing

3:44:32

2:05:35.5

44.1%

500m speed skating

44.0

34.42

21.8%

1500m speed skating

2:20.8

1:43.95

26.2%

5000m speed skating

8:39

6:14.60

27.8%

Most women’s events came decades later. Here are the longest-lasting races that permit comparisons:

Winter Olympic Event

First OR

OR by 2014

Change

10km cross-country skiing (1952)

41:40

24:58.4

40.1%

500m speed skating (1960)

45.9

37.30

18.7%

1000m speed skating (1960)

1:33.4

1:13.83

21.0%

1500m speed skating (1960)

2:25.5

1:54.02

21.6%

3000m speed skating (1960)

5:13.8

3:57.70

24.2%

Basically, these results echo what’s been happening in the summer events. There’s a more striking shift in Nordic skiing because of a substantial change in technique.

For another perspective on the theme, check out this CBC video on changes in athletes’ bodies over time. It’s less predictable. While hockey players, for example, have markedly increased in strength, speed, endurance, etc., check out what’s happened to ski jumpers:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s