In the 100m dash at this year’s Olympics, Andre De Grasse finished third behind Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin with a time of 9.91 seconds. Jesse Owens, running on a cinder track with heavier, stiffer leather shoes, won the gold at the 1936 Olympics with a time of 10.3 seconds. CBC took De Grasse to a dirt track, gave him a replica pair of Owens’ shoes, and timed him. I won’t give away the result, but Owens looks pretty good in comparison. As David Epstein said in his TED talk, perhaps technology is responsible for much of the improvement of athletic achievement:
Consider that Usain Bolt started by propelling himself out of blocks down a specially fabricated carpet designed to allow him to travel as fast as humanly possible. Jesse Owens, on the other hand, ran on cinders, the ash from burnt wood, and that soft surface stole far more energy from his legs as he ran. Rather than blocks, Jesse Owens had a gardening trowel that he had to use to dig holes in the cinders to start from. Biomechanical analysis of the speed of Owens’ joints shows that had been running on the same surface as Bolt, he wouldn’t have been 14 feet behind, he would have been within one stride.
In De Grasse’s defense, he was running on dirt, not cinders and didn’t have much of a chance to train on the surface or with the shoes. But still.