Comparing Athletes Through The Ages

Slate asks "How Badly Would Usain Bolt Destroy the Best Sprinter of 1896?" and answers with an odd "visualization" of unexplained methodology.

Slate asks “How Badly Would Usain Bolt Destroy the Best Sprinter of 1896?” and answers with an odd “visualization” of unexplained methodology. Not surprisingly, sprinters and swimmers of today are much faster than their predecessors. Indeed, in many events, the competitors finish in exact order of their year of competition.

Two things stand out, though. First, this hasn’t held true in the long jump. For both men and women, the best performances came decades ago. Second, in all events compared, today’s women are better than the men of yesteryear. Florence Griffith-Joyner’s 100-meter dash of 10.54 in 1988 beats the gold medal times of Thomas Burke (1896), Archie Hahn (1904), and Harold Abrahams 1924). Jesse Owens’ 1936 time would still blow away any woman, though, and today’s high school champions are faster than Owens.

The comparisons over time, however, are not entirely fair. Aside from the fact that today’s Olympians begin training much earlier—specializing in a single sport, receiving professional coaching, and typically devoting full time to their sport—there are vast differences in equipment and playing field. Today’s track events are held on rubberized surfaces engineered to maximize speed and the athletes wear clothing that minimize weight and wind resistance; it’s silly to compare their times directly with people running on cinder wearing loose shorts and heavy shoes.

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Franklin says:

    I find the “advanced” rubber track surfaces a monumental waste of money. I mean, I sort of understand why the organizers do it (to raise the possibility of a world record being set on their course), but what ROI does it give anybody? London’s not going to make any more money just because the history books show a record set there.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Franklin: At some point, though, new technology becomes the minimum technology for hosting a world class event.

  3. Lit3Bolt says:

    Let’s not forget advances in nutrition and medicine as well. Kinda hard to run with rickets and lead poisoning, a history of life-threatening childhood infections that have stunted your growth potential, and continual infection by parasites and gastrointestinal bugs.

    Also the muttonchops and handlebar mustaches back then were not aerodynamically shaped, so that slowed them down too. ; )