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Are atheletes really getting faster, stronger and better?
May 1, 2014 7:51 AM   Subscribe

The large got larger. The small got smaller. The weird got weirder. When you look at sporting achievements over the last decades, it seems like humans have gotten faster, better and stronger in nearly every way. Yet as David Epstein points out in this delightfully counter-intuitive talk, we might want to lay off the self-congratulation. Many factors are at play in shattering athletic records, and the development of our natural talents is just one of them. TED talk, 14:53
posted by srboisvert (22 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
I can't click this link at work but my votes are
- start 'em young
- feed 'em right
- strategic training
- larger pool of people to chose from
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:09 AM on May 1


Also going blind, I think these factors are huge:

- rich countries can locate their best talent and have them do nothing else except train for their sport or event for their entire lives

- Science! allows for smarter training that reflects how the body actually works and recovers from workloads

- Technology! allows to track biometrics better, giving a clearer picture of problem areas, rate of improvement, etc.

- flexible environments -- you can train at any sea level you want, in a building with any oxygen concentration you want, in alternative mediums such as water, etc. etc.

- equipment -- fancy swimsuits reduce everyone's time. Better ball bearings and lighter components make bikes go faster. Etc.

- doping. Because the tests are known, smart coaches can selectively dope during training and then taper off before the event. Or they can attempt to game the testing and avoid detection through corruption or swapping samples etc. Or some hormones and chemicals are naturally occuring and easy to avoid detection when using.
posted by jsturgill at 8:27 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


Are atheletes really getting faster, stronger and better?

I credit Daft Punk.
posted by Foosnark at 8:28 AM on May 1 [14 favorites]


Saw this yesterday. Good TED talks are getting fewer and farther between, but this is one of them. It's not earth-shattering or anything, but it's a concise summary of answers to something that has probably crossed your mind from time to time.
posted by etc. at 8:32 AM on May 1 [7 favorites]


technology. Really.

Look at those swimming shark skin suits that are now banned.

Those clapper skates for speed skating.

Shoes, materials, etc.
posted by k5.user at 8:38 AM on May 1


I'm holding out on sports until companies start pitting cybernetically enhanced athletes against each other a la Heatseeker
posted by AtoBtoA at 8:41 AM on May 1


In the cycling world, there's a lot of fuss about advancements. A few years ago, the blog Cozy Beehive looked at what tech advancements made significant improvements.

Oh, and right as I hit submit, the speaker gets to Merckx and the Hour Record.
posted by entropone at 8:53 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


Worth noting:
It's the second day in a row of a thread with good content, but annoying vocal delivery. His awed semi-whisper is driving me up the wall.
posted by entropone at 9:01 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


I say we go back to the Greek style where everyone competes naked.

This may be problematic for the Winter Olympics.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:01 AM on May 1 [7 favorites]


I say we go back to the Greek style where everyone competes naked.

fffm, I believe this was mentioned on the Hang Up And Listen podcast during the last Olympics.

And then on this week's episode, Mike Pesca noted that a book by "the spiritual father of the father of basketball, " one Dr. Luther Gulick -- Oberlin grad, superintendent of the physical education department of the International YMCA Training School, and James Naismith's boss -- used illustrations exclusively of naked guys doing all manner of calisthenics, leading Pesca to speculate on the possibility of a nude NBA.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:09 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


In the cycling world, there's a lot of fuss about advancements.

That's interesting, because cycling has some of the longest-standing records of any widespread endurance sport. At least that I'm aware of, anyway.

E.g., the fastest Paris–Roubaix "edition" time is from 1964. Admittedly, #2 is from 2013, but then #3 is from 1948!

Those are some pretty stubborn records, course changes or no.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:14 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


That was really good. Thanks.
posted by googly at 9:16 AM on May 1


fffm, I believe this was mentioned on the Hang Up And Listen podcast during the last Olympics.

Ah. I (regrettably, because I love the idea of the Olympics) avoided anything Sochi-related because of that whole We Hate The Gays thing.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:21 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


That's interesting, because cycling has some of the longest-standing records of any widespread endurance sport. At least that I'm aware of, anyway.

Well, some cycling does - the difficulty with road racing is that it's intensely variable. Wind, weather, oh, and route & distance all play a huge factor. Plus, well, the 1990s and the EPO ear (since which speeds have declined).

Track cycling is more of a controlled environment, and the technological benefits are marginal (though they certainly accumulate) - well, after you remove the effects 1990s O'bree/Boardman-inspired advancement-a-thon.

But records do keep falling. In December Francois Pervis beat the record for the kilo (1 kilometer standing start time trial) by over 2.5 seconds, with 56.3 seconds. Similarly, records for the 4k individual pursuit and 4k team pursuit have been steadily getting chipped away at.

My educated guess would say that small bits and pieces of those are due to tech advancements (aerodynamics of bikes, clothing, and helmets), and bigger ones are due to better sports science.
posted by entropone at 9:25 AM on May 1


If any sport could be the poster child for the effects of technology on the game, it has to be golf. The 80's and 90's, especially, saw an arms race break-out among club and ball manufacturers that resulted in a complete change in the way the game was played, even on the amateur level. The golf world witnessed older courses become obsolete almost overnight (many having to be re-built and lengthened) as even weekend players were now regularly hitting balls distances previously unheard of outside a small handful of professionals.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:28 AM on May 1


Significant impact on tennis, as well, with graphite racquets.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:06 AM on May 1


My educated guess would say that small bits and pieces of those are due to tech advancements (aerodynamics of bikes, clothing, and helmets), and bigger ones are due to better sports science.

The most interesting thing in the talk IMO is that he shows a graph for swimming where you can directly see the impact of technological changes. There are multiple sudden time dips for things like changing turning techniques, pool gutters, and the skinsuits that punctuate the steady athletic improvement.
posted by srboisvert at 10:56 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


This may be problematic for the Winter Olympics.

And the swimmers in the summer Olympics. Shrinkage!
posted by Hoopo at 11:10 AM on May 1


Based on uh.. well uh let's just say that doesn't appear to be a problem, Hoopo.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:23 AM on May 1


- start 'em young
- feed 'em right
- strategic training
- larger pool of people to chose from


These, plus the fact that the longer people as a whole do a given activity, the larger the body of knowledge and experience to learn from and build on. Every generation is standing on the shoulders of the previous, and watching tapes of them to learn what works and what doesn't.

All of these things seem incredibly intuitive to me.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:09 PM on May 1


Don't just sports harder, sportsballers; sports smarter, sports techier!
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:02 AM on May 2


I love this gif of the winning Olympic vault, side by side, 56 years apart.
posted by Penks at 2:29 PM on May 2 [3 favorites]


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