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Will There Ever Be a Time When Olympic Records Can't be Broken?
Some science pundits say no, but soon setting a new record will be incredibly hard to do

China’s Sun Yang

When Sun Yang from China first touched down for his London Olympic gold medal in the 400m freestyle, he leaned over the lane rope, cocked his fist, punched the air and screamed “Yeah! Yeah!” After a quick glance at the electronic scoreboard he then realized he broke the 2008 Beijing record. Already at London, three Olympic records have been broken in the pool, and during the 2008 Beijing Olympics 13 out of the 16 swimming events were record-breaking. It all begs the question: will human achievement ever be capped?

Some world records, like U.S. sprinter Michael Johnson’s 400m time of 43:49 seconds, set in 1996 and still an Olympic record, look like they’ll stay put, while records in other sports, such as swimming, seem to be smashed all over again at each Olympics. The odds of winning a gold medal are something like 22 million-to-one. It’s luck of the draw. Yes, you train for four years for your one event, but when the gun goes off, there are too many variables that contribute to a gold medal win– let alone a record-breaking win.

Is it possible we’ll reach a day when an Olympic record will stand forever? Some science pundits say no, but soon setting a new record will be incredibly hard to do.

Bryon MacDonald, a former Canadian swimmer who finished sixth in the 100m butterfly at the 1972 Olympics, is piling through stats in his Toronto office to conduct sports analysis for CBC this Olympics. He says, with all things being equal, Olympic records are much easier to break than world records in that the competition is only held once every four years.

“It can also often produce that one super effort just because it’s the Olympics,” he says. “Will we hit a plateau? Absolutely — if there are no changes. But there always seem to be ways to adjust suits, pools, blocks to maybe yield another tenth of a second and that could do it.” Swimming has seen changes in several of those categories over the years– changes that have lead to Olympic conditions being more conducive for record-breaking feats.

For one thing, the swimmers are much bigger. During MacDonald’s swimming career in the 70s, he’d be pitted against perhaps two athletes in a final that were more than six feet tall; now, the average height is often 6’4”. Bigger people generate more power, and you only need look at Michael Phelps’ dimensions with a 200 cm arm span. 

Second, and just as crucial, swimmers no longer only compete in just one set of Olympic games. They stick around for two or three Olympics (sometimes spanning more than a decade), gaining valuable experience, adding four years of work in between, and refining their technique trying to find ways to shave off tenths of a second.

Third: coaching is better and more widespread. While almost every country has people who run — think African countries with some of the fastest people in the world — not everyone swims. MacDonald tells me that in the 70s there were only eight countries that won swimming medals; now 22 often do. There is a much bigger pool to hone in on swimming talent, and, no advancement would come without good coaching– coaches that are willing to move across the globe. Team Canada has a mix of Australian and Hungarian coaches on staff at the games, while the Brits have American and Australian coaches.

Swimming seems to be the pinnacle when it comes to routinely smashing records; events like track and field have seen no where near such consisten progress. The New York Times reports that track medal winning times have fallen by only two per cent over a 40-year period, and only five track and field world records were broken out of 47 events in Beijing. By contrast, 25 world records were set in swimming in Beijing– out of just 34 events.

The longest-standing world record in any swimming event is no more than 10-years-old, set by Grant Hackett in the 1,500-meter freestyle at the Australian Championships in 2001. The 3000m steeple chase record, set by Kenya’s Julius Kariuki hasn’t been broken since Seoul’s 1988 Olympics. Same with US sprinter, “Flo-Jo” Florence Griffith-Joyner and her time of 10:49 seconds… she is still the fastest woman in the world. Research conducted at the University of Wolverhampton in England reveals that world records tend to accumulate slowly at first, then spike as new technologies are adopted and more people compete. Once this period of innovation ends, the record-breaking curve flattens out.  Popular Science suggests that the mathematics of record-breaking tell us that frequency of world records will dwindle on account of chance– some day we will have rolled the dice one too many times.

Dr. Greg Wells, a sports scientist who focuses on Olympians and is currently in London analyzing Canadian athletes, says there is no current world record that isn’t vulnerable.

“We haven’t reached the ultimate limit yet, but as humans we do have limits. We’ll never be able to run 100m in one second,” he says. “ We’re still some time away from reaching those limits, we’re still learning about things like training and recovery.”

Another aspect of breaking records is technology and, according to Dr. Wells, it plays a pivotal role. When a cyclist trains, for example, the athlete gets his or her body prepared physiologically– but then there is the bike to consider. As technology improves, so to do the vehicles and they become more aerodynamic. Athletes then need more watts to move the bike forward, therefore they train harder, and become faster as as result. Both intersect to create a better performance.

Dr. Wells suggests that it’s impossible to place a cap on athletic accomplishment, especially when you try to analyze events like weightlifting, rowing, or running. Each has their own training regime and challenges; no two events are the same. 

“Simply, there are too many types of athletes, too many events and types of range to be able to give a time frame on human achievement,” he says. “It becomes extremely difficult because we progress very quickly.”

The next major barrier to overcome, much like the four-minute mile, will be running a marathon in under two hours– an achievement that will be on the same plane as Usain Bolt’s record of 9.69 seconds in the 100m dash at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“Humans are capable of — we don’t know yet what our limits are,” Dr. Wells says. “As a species right now, though, we’re doing incredible things.”


Justin Robertson is a Toronto-based freelance journalist whose work has also appeared in The Walrus and the National Post. Follow Justin on Twitter @justinjourno

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