Learning about ergogenic aids this week and reading some other posts has reminded me of some cool animations that I saw this summer that the New York Times had made comparing the performance of the top three Olympic 100 meter runners, top three 100 meter free style swimmers and top three long jumpers in every Summer Olympics that has taken place. The first thing that obviously stands out is how much progression there has been since the first Olympics, especially in swimming and running. Times from the Olympians of today would crush the winners from only 20 years ago. In the long jump there has also been general progression but Bob Beaman’s 29.2 foot jump set in 1968 remains the record. This jump may have been helped by a tailwind and high altitudes but remains very impressive as there have been many improvements in training and technology since this jump but the now 45 year old mark remains the record.
The improvements in sprinting and swimming times are likely due to increased training, better nutrition and better and more nuanced sports technology. Records in swimming and running have incrementally improved each games and athletes surpass last Olympics marks by relatively small amounts. Beaman’s jump in 1968 broke the Olympic record by 21 and ¾ inches, a huge increase from the previous record, so far the digital measuring equipment in place at the time couldn’t measure his jump and it had to be measured manually. Beamon’s jump has since been surpassed by just one other athlete but has never been beaten in the Olympics. It’s hard to understand how Beaman could have done so much better than everyone else in his field that day and so many people since especially considering how much other sports have improved since 1968. It could just be that long jump is somehow resilient to improvement, gold metal jumps in the 80’s are just about what they are today and generally a little better. I don’t know what would make long jumping different than sports such as sprinting or swimming other than maybe the influence of weather or perhaps a decrease in the prevalence of doping.