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Olympic records fall, but is man in better shape? Games: There's no doubt today's Olympic athletes are better physical specimens than their colleagues at the turn of the century. But they've also been helped by better equipment and playing conditions.

The 100-year history of the modern Olympics offers but one certainty: Records will fall.

Boycotts, world wars and other disruptions have raised doubts in some years whether the games would be held at all. But when the world's best athletes gather, as they will next month in Atlanta, records are usually set in a wide range of events, from the hammer throw to the freestyle swim to the marathon.

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In some cases, the reasons for improvement seem obvious. Almost anyone could pedal a modern, Kevlar-framed, aerodynamic bicycle faster than the clunkers pedaled at the Athens Olympics of 1896. But the shot put, both then and now, has weighed 16 pounds. A marathon is still 26 miles, 385 yards in length. Swimmers still swim in water.

The improvements in performance are not small. American Robert Garrett won the gold medal in Athens for putting the shot 36 feet, 9 3/4 inches. The current record holder, Ulf Timmerman of Germany, set his mark in 1988 with a 73 feet, 8 3/4 inch toss. In the 400 meter foot race, Quincy Watts of the United States set an Olympic record in 1992 by running 20 percent faster than the gold medalist of 1896.

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Even phenomenal performers compete with the knowledge that their records may have a short life. James Thorpe set his remarkable world record in the decathlon in 1912; the record had fallen by the 1924 games, and a world record was set in that and each of the next three Olympics.

Of the seven world records set by swimmer Mark Spitz and teammates in the 1972 Games, all but two were broken in the next Olympics. All of them had been eclipsed by 1984.

Which raises the questions: Are humans getting better? And if so, why?

Humans are indeed taller, stronger and faster than they were 100 years ago. But Olympic performance has as much to do with economics and technology as with sheer athleticism. And while the elite may be resetting the standards for the species, the rest of us are falling further behind.

"It may be that the people today are coming closer to their [biological] potential," says Jack Daniels, an Olympic pentathlon medalist and professor of physical education at the State University of New York College at Cortland. "The initial improvements way back came as a result of them just beginning to train.

"It used to be it was just a fun thing to do. Once we got into the 1960s and 1970s people got very serious."

Some improvement in performance is an inevitable consequence population growth, which increases the potential for standouts. The pool of competitors has also been enlarged by the introduction of air travel, the enhanced prestige of the games and the demise of racial barriers: In the Athens games, only 311 men from 13 countries competed. Atlanta is expecting 10,800 athletes from 197 countries.

Equipment has played a role, too. In pole vaulting, bamboo has been replaced by stronger, more flexible materials. High-performance track surfaces bear little resemblance to the dirt lanes of the early games. Shoes are lighter and better designed.

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Swimming is done indoors, in a 50-meter pool. In 1896, swimmers were ferried by boat into the open sea off Greece. Hungarian Alfred Hajos braved 12 foot waves and 55 degree water to win the 100-meter freestyle gold medal. His time of 1 minute, 22 seconds is twice as long as the 1992 winning time of just over 49 seconds.

The emergence of full-time Olympians who could afford to train intensely for years is a relatively new phenomenon. It began in the 1960s in Communist countries that sought international validation by drafting promising youngsters and paying them to train for the Olympics.

Later, as the games grew in profile, athletes found ways to make money at even obscure sports. Bruce Jenner parlayed a gold medal in the 1976 decathlon into a career in broadcasting and product promotion, including a stint on Wheaties boxes.

Corporate money has grown even more influential, as the popularity of the games has increased. Sponsors now finance many sports, providing athletes stipends, housing and expert coaching. That wasn't the case when Daniels won the silver medal in the team pentathlon at the 1956 Melbourne games.

"It used to be that the Olympics were full of college athletes who would then go on with life. We had a regular turnover of athletes. Nowadays there's enough money in the sport that a guy will stay with it," Daniels says.

Innovations in technique -- often a function of chance inspiration -- also affects the outcome of many events. Dick Fosbury's backward, head-first high jump style, in which he kept his center of gravity below the bar, won him the 1968 gold and became an immediate sensation. The "Fosbury Flop" is still the standard.

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Computers have also replaced dumbbells in training rooms of many athletes, who use the ma- chines to monitor their workouts or to refine the biomechanics of their performance. "It's an accumulation of knowledge," says Walter R. Gove, a sociology professor at Vanderbilt University who has studied Olympians. "People know how to exercise a particular muscle. They didn't used to know how to do that."

The impact is seen in the scores. In the 1992 Games, new Olympic or world records were established in one fourth of the 24 men's track and field events. And that was a below-average year.

According to the book "Olympic Trends," by A. B. Johnson and Melinda Johnson, in each of the 21 modern Olympic Games between 1896 and 1988, records were set in an average of 67 percent of the men's track and field events. In swimming, records were set in an average of 81 percent of the events.

Phil Sparling, a professor of exercise physiology at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, says there was no sophisticated testing of athletes 100 years ago, but he assumes today's best performers use oxygen more efficiently and have less body fat than their predecessors.

"I think it's primarily a consequence of being able to select and screen for the best athletes," says Sparling. "If there was an improvement in the species, then you would expect to see the general level in fitness tests we give our children to increase. Those really have not, and in some cases have declined."

Women's scores mirror the advances of the men. Women's events were added to the Olympics much later and the scores improved dramatically in the first few decades. They now are flattening out. It is a trend that will probably hold for both men and women as the top athletes begin to bump up against biological limitations.

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"We're still getting improvement but there's a flattening of improvement," says Sparling. "I don't think we'll see dramatic change anymore."

Pub Date: 6/24/96


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