Sprinters Keep Getting Better: Even Usain Bolt Can’t Keep Up!

Science looks at how technology affects records and trends in Olympic sports. Sprinters keep getting better every year, which might mean even Usain Bolt won’t be able to keep up!

The Olympic trials are wrapping up, and teams are forming for each respective country. There has been fierce competition between teammates, such as Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte from the United States in swimming, and Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake, who are sprinters from Jamaica. Bolt set world record times in the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, along with earning three gold medals, but just recently he lost to teammate Blake in both the 100 and 200 meter Jamaican Olympic trials.1 It’s obvious that sprinters are performing better than ever, and in this month’s Physics World, Steve Haake, director of the Center for Sports Engineering at Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom, stated that the men’s 100 meter sprint will be a very exciting event.

Haake has developed a model known as the “performance improvement index.” This model uses simple physics to compare the relative improvement of top athletes in different sports over the last 100 years. The performance-improvement index of the men’s 100 meter sprint is increasing, while other events such as javelin and swimming have plateaued or even decreased.2

A reason for the decline in performances in some events is a result of technological interventions. Javelin throwers were improving drastically until the mid-1980s, when the International Association of Athletics Federations changed the specifications of the javelin, moving its center of mass towards the tip by 4 centimeters. This change was made due to safety concerns, and after the change the javelin would land on its tip, unlike before. Consequently, this reduced throwing distances by about 9 meters.3

In swimming there were 25 and 47 records broken in 2008 and 2009, respectively, but this can largely be attributed to the tight-fitting full body swimsuits that were being worn. These swimsuits reduced cross-sectional area of the body by pulling it into a more cylindrical shape, which reduced drag. They were also comprised of polyurethane, which changed the way water flowed over the body. The suits have since been deemed illegal in competition.4

As Haake wrote, “One way of finding out how exactly technology affects sporting performance is to examine the physics involved. We can then try to quantify the effect of technology on sporting events – and find out whether it really is all about the equipment.”5

One thing is for sure, the 100 meter sprint will be an event to see. Everyone will be watching to see if the former gold medalist and world record holder can mimic his performances in Beijing or if Yohan Blake has finally surpassed his teammate. So many factors are involved at this level of performance, possibly another sprinter can even emerge victorious – Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin from the United States are also favored to medal.6

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.