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August 6, 2012 10:25 PM   Subscribe

How fast are today's Olympic runners? Pretty darn fast. But maybe not as fast as you think?
posted by cthuljew (76 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Not as fast as I think?" Bolt is faster than the historic runners to an almost comical degree.

Yes, the lame conclusion states it's "only three seconds," but in a race that takes under 10 seconds, that's a HUGE margin.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:31 PM on August 6, 2012 [24 favorites]


As far as I can see there's an over-whelming trend to being faster in the modern era, and poor old Francis Lane lagging at the back.

Drugs and hormones aside, what other reasons would there be, other than training methods?

The bit about the school kids was very interesting. I'm glad I watched the video.
posted by Mezentian at 10:32 PM on August 6, 2012


30% is an astonishing improvement in the context of most sports.
posted by smoke at 10:34 PM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Training methods and scouring the entire world for the best athletes to train in the first place. And with a larger population to choose from than in 1896 there's going to be more natural variability at both ends of the graph.
posted by Kevin Street at 10:35 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Drugs and hormones aside, what other reasons would there be, other than training methods?

Equipment. I mean, they don't have much, but I think it probably makes a difference --- if you look at the Times' pic of the 1904 St. Louis winner, he's wearing giant cotton shorts, a leather belt, leather shoes, and was probably running on a cinder track, no spring. Maybe the ultimate weight you're dragging around is only a pound or two --- but even my fat ass notices a difference running for the train in work shoes vs. sneakers. Them clod-hoppers that passed for running shoes a hundred years ago might add a second. And the surface makes a huge difference too.
posted by Diablevert at 10:38 PM on August 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'd put the reasons for improvement as:

1) Inclusion. Anyone anywhere in the world who has the talent will now probably be found and groomed to race. (And I'm not an expert on Olympic racial history but I'm guessing Bolt would not have even been allowed to compete in 1896)

2) Improved training methods and training from a younger age. Those guys in 1896 probably had to work other jobs just to stay alive, rather than devoting their lives to athletics.

3) Improved nutrition and common-sense health measures. I don't know about runners, but pro basketball players smoked in the locker room at halftime at least into the 1960s(!!!) We've come a long way.

4) The natural tendency to get better at things the longer we do them. Bolt and today's runners have the advantage of looking back on 100+ years of history to figure out what works and what doesn't.

5) Improved equipment and track conditions. Though I have no doubt you could Bolt in a silly old-tymey 1896 costume and he'd still beat those guys by a full 2-3 seconds.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:45 PM on August 6, 2012 [10 favorites]


Drugs and hormones aside, what other reasons would there be, other than training methods?

I'd assume a more general awareness of sports leads children to be focussed (either of their own accord or by those who would focus children into such things) into sports at earlier and earlier ages. It's a form of training method, but it's certainly playing a role.

Not to mention better nutrition and general awareness of health and all the better understanding of what it takes to make a fast runner, medically and other ways.

Just as humans have demonstrably increased in height across even recent recorded history, I can easily understand how non-drug and non-hormone factors would play a role in increased running ability. We've gotten better at so many other things that would contribute, it just makes sense.
posted by hippybear at 10:46 PM on August 6, 2012


Equipment certainly makes a big difference. Those dapper gents from the 1904 Olympics were still running the 100m dash in whale-bone corsets and leaden codpieces, as was the custom of the day.
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 10:46 PM on August 6, 2012 [10 favorites]


Did they even have starting blocks/start from a crouch in the 19th century?
posted by thecjm at 10:47 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think a wider, better fed, healthier group of athletes has to be the biggest change. Look at the explosion in women's sports in the US since Title 9. Also a wealthier population and more opportunities for people to train full time or at least only have to work part time. There were probably a lot of good athletes who never had the chance in the past.
posted by fshgrl at 10:50 PM on August 6, 2012


30% is an astonishing improvement in the context of most sports.

What Usain Bolt has done is even more astonishing when you look at the progression of world records over time, especially since the first sub-10 times. To get from 10.4 to 10.0 took 48 years. 10.0 down to 9.8 -- 31 years. 9.8 to 9.6 took just 10 years - and Bolt shaved the last 0.1 and then some all by himself from '08 to '09.

And when he set the current world record at 9.58, beating his own mark of 9.69, it was largest single reduction from old record to new record since the introduction of automatic timing in the 1970s.

I would also like to take this opportunity to state, for the record, that when you rewatch yesterday's 100m final, and you see Bolt do that cocky little shushing of the crowd as he steps into the blocks, it's up there with Babe Ruth calling his shot. Bolt's just on another planet, even if it's measured in hundredths of a second.
posted by gompa at 10:52 PM on August 6, 2012 [10 favorites]


It is impossible to discount improvements in training methods and technique when looking at improvements in sport. Knowledge of programming, physiology, and other exercise science topics was virtually nil compared to what we know today. You'd hardly dismiss the role medical science has played in the improvement in people's lifespans, so why dismiss the role gains in sports science has played in the improvements in our athletes?
posted by schroedinger at 10:53 PM on August 6, 2012


I'm going to shoulder the contrary opinion. I love everything about this video. Okay now, good night.
posted by LordSludge at 10:57 PM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Have a read of this interesting article from a few weeks ago about performance and record breaking in the modern era. Read on particularly from around the first graph - so many records set by drug-fuelled eastern european women. Virtually no new records set since 1988! The third graph down shows jsut how remarkable Bolt's achievements are.
posted by wilful at 10:58 PM on August 6, 2012 [6 favorites]


when you look at the progression of world records over time, especially since the first sub-10 times. To get from 10.4 to 10.0 took 48 years. 10.0 down to 9.8 -- 31 years. 9.8 to 9.6 took just 10 years - and Bolt shaved the last 0.1 and then some all by himself from '08 to '09.

If you include Ben Johnson's times, the progression is completely normal and unremarkable until Bolt's 9.58.

Oh, and since it doesn't get enough airplay: believe it or not, Johnson was probably sabotaged.
posted by Chuckles at 11:01 PM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


o many records set by drug-fuelled eastern european women. Virtually no new records set since 1988!

Ya, that east European 100m runner, what was her name?!?! Oh ya, Flo-Jo. Doping does not know any nationality.
posted by Chuckles at 11:03 PM on August 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


The air was thicker in the Victorian era, with all the smog of the high industrial era, which added significantly to the drag factor.
posted by Abiezer at 11:22 PM on August 6, 2012


Though I have no doubt you could Bolt in a silly old-tymey 1896 costume and he'd still beat those guys by a full 2-3 seconds.

Now that is an Olympics I'd watch. Make it happen IOC!
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 11:30 PM on August 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


This is such a remarkable and steady increase in speed that I have to wonder: at what point will we actually be moving backwards in time?
I look forward...er...yeah, forward, to that momentous day when a lithe Jamaican fellow really exerts himself, leaving a fiery streak in his wake and suddenly finding himself in Hill Valley circa 1955.
posted by Alonzo T. Calm at 11:37 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Though I have no doubt you could Bolt in a silly old-tymey 1896 costume and he'd still beat those guys by a full 2-3 seconds.

It's funny seeing the USA sprinters in their ridiculous-looking skin-tight suits, while Bolt smashes records while wearing rather loose-fitting shirts. So yeah, he'd probably still beat them in an 1896 costume.
posted by zsazsa at 11:44 PM on August 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


whyareyouatriangle: "Though I have no doubt you could Bolt in a silly old-tymey 1896 costume and he'd still beat those guys by a full 2-3 seconds.

Now that is an Olympics I'd watch. Make it happen IOC
"

I have a dreams that someday we'll see some folks recreate a stage of the Tour de France using vintage bicycles and clothing, from a range of time periods. Let's get folks in 1970s bikes and gear competing against Mercx! Then let's do pre-war (WW1) and see how modern riders do with old bike styles and gear.

I mean, they're still probably going to kick some major ass but it would be fascinating to see the effect of equipment.

*wanders off, still in daydream*
posted by barnacles at 12:18 AM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have a dreams that someday we'll see some folks recreate a stage of the Tour de France using vintage bicycles and clothing, from a range of time periods

Well, there's L'Eroica in Italy.
posted by vacapinta at 12:24 AM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I once got a friend to time me on a 100m sprint at a local track. It took me about 20 seconds. Time travel is the only thing holding me back from getting a gold medal. The 1200 BC Olympics, I think.

Fine, it was more like 24.4 seconds
posted by vidur at 12:30 AM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Those dapper gents from the 1904 Olympics were still running the 100m dash in whale-bone corsets and leaden codpieces, as was the custom of the day.

Don't forget the onion on your belt.
posted by colie at 12:41 AM on August 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


My proposal is that Olympic athletes be tossed, one after another, from a a twenty-story building. Whichever one hits the ground first wins.

Freshman physics suggests that all Olympic athletes should reach the ground at the same time. The tiniest gymnast should smack the pavement at the same time as the heaviest shot-putter.

But physics doesn't account for the human spirit, and the will to succeed, and that's what makes the Athlete Toss exciting. Who can forget the memorable matchup between Michael Phelps and Gabby Douglas? Each of them hurled off a tall building, expected to reach the ground according to Newtonian physics, both of them fighting 9.8 meters per second2 (that's 32 feet per second per second, for those of you watching at home at home).

Gabby would do more with the fall, perhaps pirouetting before the inevitable collision with the ground, but Michael Phelps, because he is the consummate champion, would extend his giganto arms and touch the ground first.

They stand on the podium, each of them victors, most of them flattened.
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:47 AM on August 7, 2012 [7 favorites]


Faster, higher, no longer
Another 0.11 seconds would take the time below what Dr Denny, from Stanford University, reckons is the absolute limit of human athletic performance in the 100-metre dash.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:53 AM on August 7, 2012


"The 1200 BC Olympics, I think."

You'd probably have to run that 100m in full hoplite armor, vidur. Or whatever armor the Mycenaeans used.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:58 AM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


My problem with Olympic running event is with you can reasonably call a "dash". You've got a 100 meter dash and a 200 meter dash, but at some point you've got to admit it's not a dash anymore.

I'm doing the marathon saunter.
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:00 AM on August 7, 2012


dr jimmy: Anyone anywhere in the world who has the talent will now probably be found and groomed to race.

Uh, this is a wild overstatement. Usain Bolt benefited from a relatively well-resourced education system with coaches that recognised his sprinting skills at cricket and urged him to compete in athletics, where he did not shine particularly at first, but was able to hone his skills thanks to a relatively well-resourced national athletics contest. You think sub-Saharan Africa or rural India is going to offer that pathway to its citizens?

It's easy to forget that 1/4 of the world's population struggles to get enough to eat. Forget becoming a champion sprinter.

Not to rant, but this triumphalism attached to Olympic champions who are the "best in the world" pisses me the fuck off. In Australia today it was all about a gold-medalling who won the Laser-class solo yachting gold medal. Best out of the 7 billion people on the planet? Only because 6.999 billion of those 7 billion don't even know what a Laser-class yacht was (or in many cases, couldn't dream of affording the money even to buy the transport to even get to the fucking ocean to see a boat).
posted by dontjumplarry at 1:00 AM on August 7, 2012 [6 favorites]


Why didn't they actually animate it? I was really looking forward to that race. It would be much more illustrative of the actual differences to see every winner in the last century finish within about a second of each other. One mississippi over 100 hundred years. That's how much faster we've gotten. Seeing that in motion would be way cooler than a glorified bar graph.
posted by team lowkey at 1:02 AM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was sad because I had no shoes. Then I saw a guy in the Olympics who had no feet. And he can run faster than me. Now I'm really sad.
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:06 AM on August 7, 2012 [21 favorites]


I'm guessing Bolt would not have even been allowed to compete in 1896

I think he would - weren't there some zulus in the 1904 one? - but interested if anyone knows.

Of course if he'd been a woman it would have been out of the question.
posted by Segundus at 1:09 AM on August 7, 2012


Hmm, I think twoleftfeet will fail the drug test.
posted by Pendragon at 3:10 AM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


This has been all over the blogosphere, but for those who haven't seen it, this is the gold medal vault from this years Olympics compared to the winning vault from the 1958 world champs.
posted by markr at 3:21 AM on August 7, 2012 [9 favorites]


[twoleftfeet, cut out the comment flooding.]
posted by taz at 3:43 AM on August 7, 2012


The New York Times ran the same style animation for the men's 100-meter freestyle, and the contrast is even more stark. The 1896 winner barely would have made the turn by the time Nathan Adrian finished this year.
posted by Mayor West at 4:21 AM on August 7, 2012


Improved nutrition and common-sense health measures...

Poppycock! I'll have you know the 1896 champion was greatly fortified by his pre-race meal of Guinness, beef liver, steak and kidney pie, suet pudding and energy-giving treacle. The regimen was personally designed by the best phrenologists available.
posted by PlusDistance at 4:34 AM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


What a truly impressive infographic.
posted by painquale at 4:40 AM on August 7, 2012


I prefer this method of visualizing how fast excellent sprinters really are (NFL receiver Julio Jones vs sportscaster Rich Eisen in a 40 yard dash). Which is why I believe every Olympic heat and event should include one average human for comparison's sake.
posted by nathancaswell at 4:53 AM on August 7, 2012 [9 favorites]


What I want to know is how long it takes average people to run 100m?

I know its hard to define average, but it'd have to be someone with a basic level of fitness. Say, for example, someone who has run a 5k recently. How long does it take them to run 100m? 20 sec? 15 sec?
posted by vacapinta at 5:25 AM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Which is why I believe every Olympic heat and event should include one average human for comparison's sake.

I've been saying this all along, and I am totally serious about it. You could have contests all around the world to see who would get to be the average person for each event. I think you have to give them a week to train so they would at least know what the fuck they were doing (especially for sports like gymnastics and diving and such), but I really think it would throw the athletic achievement of the Olympians into better contrast, especially for the ones who have no shot of medaling. You feel bad for the last place sprinter, but if you saw how thoroughly they would beat any normal person, it would put their effort into the proper context.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:26 AM on August 7, 2012 [5 favorites]


NFL receiver Julio Jones vs sportscaster Rich Eisen in a 40 yard dash

Holy crap that is striking.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:37 AM on August 7, 2012


More of Rich Eisen vs. NFL players, including a guy who is listed at 360 pounds.
posted by Flunkie at 5:41 AM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


What I want to know is how long it takes average people to run 100m?

It isn't an average person, but I really liked Andy Murray's comment to the BBC interviewer just after he beat Roger Federer to the men's singles tennis gold on Sunday. He said that he does 400m runs as part of his training, and his best time is 57 seconds. He was marvelling that when Mo Farah won the 10000m, he ran the final 400m of it in 53 seconds.
posted by rory at 6:01 AM on August 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think that, for most events, you could just use averages from all of the reasonably well timed/scored events. You could include junior high and high school races (and their equivalents in other countries). The "average" would end up skewing high compared to the population but even the average for serious athletes would pale in comparison to the Olympic Athletes. Plus, how cool would it be if some random teenage track athlete gets to run in the Olympics?

I like this idea a lot, even if it's just a one-off publicity stunt after the games. What can we do to make it happen?
posted by VTX at 6:13 AM on August 7, 2012


Not every sport follows such a neat progression.

The Long jump world record suffers from the Bob Beamon disruption. He shouldn't have been jumping that far that soon.

The pole vault is even stranger. Its all Bubka.
posted by vacapinta at 6:19 AM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


The reasons for improved performances:

1) Better names. USA in Bolt!
2) Better groupies.
3) The internet. All of the fastest have occurred after the internet was introduced.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:21 AM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I assume 100 years is way too short a timeframe for genetics to have any effect, but in creatures with shorter lifespans, would natural selection produce faster animals? I'm thinking of the cheetah specifically - I wonder if they've gotten faster over time. I know one just set a new land speed record.
posted by desjardins at 6:41 AM on August 7, 2012




> "The pole vault is even stranger. Its all Bubka."

Actually, it is all Bubka and Isinbayeva.
posted by kyrademon at 6:50 AM on August 7, 2012


this is the gold medal vault from this years Olympics compared to the winning vault from the 1958 world champs.

The equipment difference is quite significant between the two vaults, too.
posted by jeather at 7:36 AM on August 7, 2012


I'm fascinated that human beings are advancing so quickly compared to other beings. Consider racehorses, which - despite being bred and trained to run fast - don't exhibit much progress.

In 1900, the winning horse in the Kentucky Derby (1.25 miles) finished in 2:06.25. In 2012, the winner clocked 2:01.83 - fewer than 5 seconds, or about 4 percent.

In the same period, the men's mile record has dropped about 32 seconds, or about 12 percent.

I'm sure there are lots of reasons for the difference, but I doubt species evolution is one of them.
posted by sixpack at 7:38 AM on August 7, 2012


would natural selection produce faster animals?

Depends on whether being amongst the fastest in a population offers advantages in terms of breeding opportunities.

I'm thinking of the cheetah specifically - I wonder if they've gotten faster over time. I know one just set a new land speed record.

If cheetahs keep eating the slower prey then one might assume the rest of the prey are being selected for speed and they - on average - will get faster. If catching dinner (and thus not starving before breeding) depends on getting faster then this would tend to suggest cheetahs get faster too (or die out or find some alternative source of food).

Not noticeably in 100 years, and there will be codicils to the above.
posted by biffa at 7:44 AM on August 7, 2012


I'm fascinated that human beings are advancing so quickly compared to other beings. Consider racehorses, which - despite being bred and trained to run fast - don't exhibit much progress.

In 1900, the winning horse in the Kentucky Derby (1.25 miles) finished in 2:06.25. In 2012, the winner clocked 2:01.83 - fewer than 5 seconds, or about 4 percent.

In the same period, the men's mile record has dropped about 32 seconds, or about 12 percent.

I'm sure there are lots of reasons for the difference, but I doubt species evolution is one of them.


As noted above, the pool of people from which athletes are drawn has got wider, and for succeeding as an elite athlete the incentives have got much larger. Keeping ahead of the competition means more prize money and more endorsements, and elite athlete programmes mean more people can get paid to train to a high level. Bolt is worth $20mn, Phelps is worth $40mn.
posted by biffa at 7:49 AM on August 7, 2012


It's easy to forget that 1/4 of the world's population struggles to get enough to eat. Forget becoming a champion sprinter.

Not to rant, but this triumphalism attached to Olympic champions who are the "best in the world" pisses me the fuck off. In Australia today it was all about a gold-medalling who won the Laser-class solo yachting gold medal. Best out of the 7 billion people on the planet? Only because 6.999 billion of those 7 billion don't even know what a Laser-class yacht was (or in many cases, couldn't dream of affording the money even to buy the transport to even get to the fucking ocean to see a boat).


Or one could view, say, Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele's dominance in the 5,000m and 10,000m events as a signal to the world that Ethiopia is not just some starving third-world basketcase in east Africa for the West to rescue but a long-distance running juggernaut that is not just peers on the same level as the West but indeed its very master. Gebrselassie has said as much about what it means competing for a country most Westerners associate with nothing more than abject poverty.

Or we could quit grinding that axe for 10 seconds (or in the case of this FPP, 9.64 seconds) and just enjoy a massive international sporting championship and bask in moments of extreme excellence even in events as exclusive as laser-class yacht racing.
posted by Luminiferous Ether at 7:52 AM on August 7, 2012 [6 favorites]


I think he would - weren't there some zulus in the 1904 one? - but interested if anyone knows.

It looks like the first black Olympian was George C. Poage in 1904. My guess is that the Olympics have never had an official policy of excluding black athletes, but the first two didn't have any for reasons of economics, transportation, and the general level of racism in society. As soon as the Games were held somewhere that was relatively easy for high-level black athletes to get to, they were present and winning medals.
posted by Copronymus at 7:57 AM on August 7, 2012


Oh, and since it doesn't get enough airplay: believe it or not, Johnson was probably sabotaged.

Based solely on that article, I think "probably" is a strong word. "Possibly" would be much more accurate.
posted by inigo2 at 8:06 AM on August 7, 2012


Gebrselassie has said as much about what it means competing for a country most Westerners associate with nothing more than abject poverty.

And the pre-race segments on NBC featuring Kirani James yesterday focused heavily on his works as an 'ambassador' for Grenada. He stated that he wants Grenada to be known for more than just an invasion and a hurricane. His win yesterday is not just the country's first ever Olympic medal, but significant publicity for a fragile tourist industry and an inspirational boost to future Grenadian athletes.
posted by rh at 8:10 AM on August 7, 2012


The 1904 Olympics coincided with the St. Louis World's Fair, and included Anthropology Days, which may be what Segundus is remembering.
"Anthropology Days," as the event was called, took place on Aug. 12 and 13, 1904. The first day featured European-style competitions: the shot put, the high jump, the long jump, the mile, and others. It went poorly—the events had been pulled together very quickly, and there was no time to teach the participants. One strength event—throwing a 56-pound weight—apparently enticed only three competitors, all three of whom refused to try a second round of throws. The high jump was confounding. Even the 100-yard dash was problematic. With so many languages spoken, the starting gun concept was understandably lost on many of the participants. So, too, was the idea of breaking through the finish line: Many would stop short or run below the tape.

The second day featured what the organizers saw as more "savage-friendly" exhibitions: a tree-climbing contest, archery, fighting demonstrations, a Mohawk vs. Seneca lacrosse match, and mud throwing. But even these supposedly more culturally appropriate games didn't work out the way they'd hoped. Thinking that spear-throwing peoples would fare well, Sullivan and McGee were shocked to see that most participants had trouble with the javelin.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:11 AM on August 7, 2012


The organizers must have known standards were low in the early days because no athlete won a gold medal in either the 1896 or 1900 Olympics!

(* entirely true)
posted by rh at 8:30 AM on August 7, 2012


Based solely on that article, I think "probably" is a strong word. "Possibly" would be much more accurate.

Possibly was true from day one in 1988 when Johnson first made the claim. Reasonably likely was eclipsed during the Dubin inquiry when it was well established by Johnson, Francis, and Astafan that Johnson did not use the drug that was found in his system. Once Johnson got a confession from the guy who did it, I think "probably" is the least strong language that one could choose.
posted by Chuckles at 8:34 AM on August 7, 2012


I know its hard to define average, but it'd have to be someone with a basic level of fitness. Say, for example, someone who has run a 5k recently. How long does it take them to run 100m? 20 sec? 15 sec?

Not sure about that measure for "average". What percentage of 18-40 year old people around the world could get up and run a 5K right now? What percentage of North Americans? I'd probably put "5K runners" in the 10th to 5th percentile range.
posted by CaseyB at 8:54 AM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Long jump world record suffers from the Bob Beamon disruption. He shouldn't have been jumping that far that soon.

Everything about that jump of Beamon's is bizarre. He never got within two feet of that distance for the rest of his career. If all we had to go by was witness statements, Occam's razor would suggest that we dismiss the whole thing as a hoax or a shared delusion.
posted by yoink at 9:13 AM on August 7, 2012


Which is why I believe every Olympic heat and event should include one average human for comparison's sake.

If you know how fast you run, you can kinda do that.
posted by madajb at 9:19 AM on August 7, 2012 [6 favorites]


If you know how fast you run, you can kinda do that.

Oh my God that is so depressing.
posted by rhapsodie at 10:29 AM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Which is why I believe every Olympic heat and event should include one average human for comparison's sake.

If you ever find yourself running on a treadmill at the gym, rather than pottering along at the 5K 'fun run' speed of 6mph - 8mph, try running at world record marathon pace for a few minutes. That means cranking it up to 12.7mph. Some gym treadmills are designed for mere mortals and only go up to 12mph. If you can manage a few minutes at that speed that's great! World record marathon runners keep up that pace for a little over 2 hours.
posted by rh at 11:00 AM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Not to rant, but this triumphalism attached to Olympic champions who are the "best in the world" pisses me the fuck off. In Australia today it was all about a gold-medalling who won the Laser-class solo yachting gold medal. Best out of the 7 billion people on the planet? Only because 6.999 billion of those 7 billion don't even know what a Laser-class yacht was (or in many cases, couldn't dream of affording the money even to buy the transport to even get to the fucking ocean to see a boat

While I won't disagree that sailing is an expensive sport, there are probably at least a few hundred million people for whom dinghy racing is easily affordable. That they don't do it is neither here nor there, I could afford to compete in all kinds of sports but I don't do it.
posted by atrazine at 11:27 AM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


dinghies
posted by nathancaswell at 11:56 AM on August 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


You feel bad for the last place sprinter, but if you saw how thoroughly they would beat any normal person, it would put their effort into the proper context.

I happened to see part of the USA vs Brazil gym volleyball match on a restaurant TV last week. I played a few semesters' worth of volleyball in college, so I know how the game works and have a fair sense of what's difficult about it.

These women were supernaturally good. I have never seen such astoundingly competent volleyball playing. I just couldn't stop staring at this game. Every move executed bam-bam-BAM, done. I had no idea it was possible to play volleyball with such a high level of skill.

With any other sport in the summer games I'd likely be vaguely nodding my head and listening to the commentators and comparing the competitors against each other, yeah yeah this guy runs faster than that guy, ok, sure, whatever. But with some baseline experience with the sport, I could compare Olympian skill against normal levels of skill, and it was a whole different experience.
posted by Mars Saxman at 12:03 PM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


What I want to know is how long it takes average people to run 100m?

Average people don't run the 100m. They walk, or if its rainy, try to catch a cab.
posted by rtimmel at 12:41 PM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


I assume 100 years is way too short a timeframe for genetics to have any effect, but in creatures with shorter lifespans, would natural selection produce faster animals? I'm thinking of the cheetah specifically - I wonder if they've gotten faster over time. I know one just set a new land speed record.

So many answers!

The most trivial answer is that cheetahs have so little genetic variation as to be, basically, clones. This is attributed to two separate genetic bottlenecks -- one in a recent ice age, one due to human hunting. Where there's no variation, there's no evolution.

A different trivial answer is that R = (h-squared)S, where R is the response to selection, "h-squared" is narrow-sense heritability, and S is the selection differential. So "R" is just the change in the trait value in the offspring relative to the parents, and S is the difference in trait value between the total parent population and the selected parent population. h-squared (different from H-squared, the broad sense heritability) is (modulo some assumptions about the genetic bases of the trait) a value telling you how much of the variance in a trait in a population, V(p), is attributable to the additive genetic variance, V(a). And "additive genetic variance" is basically just the variance in population that can be selected on.

That's a really simple model; there's a reason it's called the "breeder's equation", because it refers to a kind of univariate hard selection that mostly crops up in artificial selection, not natural selection. In natural selection, there are multiple traits being selected on, often in different directions, and the "trait" that's really being selected on is rarely quite so obvious as "speed" or "height". So you might not see evolution on a trait even if there is variance present in the population, because that trait (as you understand it) may covary with another trait which is being selected in an opposing direction.

(Those underlying genetic covariances THEMSELVES can evolve, by the way.)

So, 1: Are cheetahs in the wild currently getting faster? Probably not; there's no variance for selection to act on.

2. Would cheetahs pre-bottleneck have been getting incrementally faster per generation? Maybe. There has to have been very strong directional selection on them already to get faster; one of the things directional selection can do is run a population out of variation for selection to act on. Once that happens, something needs to change to get the population mean moving again -- weakening of selection on a different, opposing trait, for instance, or a novel beneficial mutation, or increased directional selection overriding selection on an opposing trait, or a change in genomic architecture which weakens the covariance with that opposing trait.

3. Is 100 years (approx. 5 human generations) too short a time to see evolution in humans? No, it's not, but examples are really depressing, because evolution is a destructive process. In general, though, with very strong selection in laboratory populations, a population mean can move as fast as one standard deviation per generation. IIRC, [citation needed] (See, again, that if there's no variance in the population, one SD = 0 = no movement of the trait mean.)

4. Can we expect human evolution to be a factor in changes in Olympic best times? This would only work if humans were currently under strong selection for athleticism, and we're really not. What MIGHT be a factor is increased migration and intermarriage of previously separated populations -- that's something that can break down established genetic covariances. The population means may not be moving, but there may be more people at the extremes. There's also the fact that there are just a whole lot more people in the world for whom the Olympics are a possibility.

And this is all why I find the Olympics fascinating. The heart of evolutionary biology as a science is variation. This was Darwin's big contribution: it's not the mean that matters, it's the variance. The focus shifts from the ideal type of a species to the variant forms, the endless forms most beautiful. A great deal of the work of evolutionary biologists is creating genotype-phenotype maps and estimating genetic variances and covariances. Even though evolution isn't going on, the Olympics create this massive natural experiment where we can see what happens when you select hard enough on a given individual trait or combination of traits. And even given 7 billion people to select from, elite athletes still differ from each other. You still get people like Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I've heard it argued that Phelp's arms are disproportionately long relative to his height, which would be an example of a breakdown of one of the covariances I was talking about above. You're looking at phenotypic variance and covariance instead of genotypic, but it's still fascinating.
posted by endless_forms at 12:55 PM on August 7, 2012 [7 favorites]


So one of my favourite scientific papers is a letter in Nature (pay walled, alas); not a paper but a "Dear Sir" to the editor from Bill Hill the Edinburgh quantitative geneticist. In 1988 he wrote a letter entitled "Why aren't horses faster?" in which he points out that improvement in running times is of the same order of magnitude as a rule of thumb that in agricultural animals under intense artificial selection, in which you can get an average of 1% per year. He also points out that human athletes are definitively *not* under artificial selection since we don't breed our winners, but that we do feed them properly, improve their equipment and screen much of our population intensively for innate ability. He contrasts this with performance in major flat races for horses, in which the winning times haven't improved in 50 years, despite doing many of the things we also do for human athletes, and concludes that thoroughbreds are so historically inbred that there's no variation in performance left to optimise and that immediately outcrossing with some new stock might produce some very interesting changes. I've no idea how the subsequent 20 years have borne out all this, but it does give some context to the improvement in the 100m relative to the other things we try and do better.
posted by cromagnon at 12:57 PM on August 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


LOL cromagnon (!! eponhysterical), but that's a very interesting hypothesis by Hill.

Horse racing is a very expensive sport, I'm surprised that there hasn't been attempts at outcrossing (unless the owners/breeders are as inbred as their studs and hold to the idea of bloodlines religiously). One potential problem with outcrossing is that you're going to need hundreds, if not thousands, of outbred offspring with whom to test. The cost/reward ratio probably still favours breeding established lineages rather than systematically outbreeding with "wildtypes."

Also, are there rules for what kinds of horseshoes racehorses are allowed to wear? I'm thinking that a newborn trained with using engineered synthetic highly optimized shoes (and which kinds of shoe depending on weather conditions including temperature and barometric pressure) might be a wise investment.

... Do human olympic athletes use different footwear depending on the temperature/humidity/other-environmental-conditions?

--

Love the presentation except for that it doesn't show that a 3s decrease in winning finish times represents >25% decrease in 1895 race times as well as it could (although kudos for starting from 0 instead of from the slowest racer (?)).

Also, the rate of decrease in race time isn't linear, it's pretty obviously slowing down. Sooner that than later, I think that most winners will be determined by thousandths is not hundreds of thousandths of seconds.
posted by porpoise at 8:07 PM on August 7, 2012


since we don't breed our winners

See: Idiocracy.
posted by desjardins at 8:46 PM on August 7, 2012


dontjumplarry: "Uh, this is a wild overstatement. Usain Bolt benefited from a relatively well-resourced education system with coaches that recognised his sprinting skills at cricket and urged him to compete in athletics, where he did not shine particularly at first, but was able to hone his skills thanks to a relatively well-resourced national athletics contest. You think sub-Saharan Africa or rural India is going to offer that pathway to its citizens?"

World's Greatest Athlete Forced Back Into Diamond Mine At Gunpoint
posted by Rhaomi at 10:20 PM on August 7, 2012


To emphasize how much faster than normal people these sprinters are, the Olympic record was just set in the Decathlon 100m at 10.35 seconds. Or about what sprinters were running in the 1920s.
posted by stopgap at 4:56 PM on August 8, 2012


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