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.
This is a video of a pair of Kenyan high schoolers competing in a high jump contest, skillfully using a throwback technique rarely seen these days.
Cool, right? They’re using a scissors-jump technique that was popular in international competitions prior to the early 1900s, when landing areas were sand pits rather than the huge foam pads you typically see today. Various techniques followed the scissors-jump, with each making higher jumps possible until Dick Fosbury invented his Flop in 1968. All international competitors use the Flop today.
Interestingly though, the Fosbury Flop is not the instantly disruptive innovation I’d always thought it was. Fosbury started sailing over the bar backwards as a senior in high school in the mid-1960s. He refined his invention for years until his gold medal at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics attracted the attention of other jumpers, who recognized the potential of the technique. But if you look at the progression of high jump world records, there was no huge jump (sorry) in record heights because of the Flop. Ten years after the Flop’s big-stage debut at the Mexico City Games, the world record holder Vladimir Yashchenko still used the straddle technique. And in the 1980 Olympics, three high jump finalists didn’t use the Flop. Like most new promising technologies, the Flop took time to catch on, even though 45 years on, it’s the clearly superior technique. (via @dunstan)
Or rather, just an amazing performance, full stop. I was alerted to this video by Dunstan Orchard who tweeted “this must be the most remarkable track race I’ve ever seen”. I don’t want to spoil it too much but pay attention to the guy in last place coming out of the curve.
Like a freight train! I’ve watched this race about 8 times now and it never gets old. The runner, Richard Whitehead, set the world record in the race. He also owns the world record in the marathon, which, amazing! Oh, and this table tennis shot is pretty great too.
After the race, track and field aficionados questioned her tactics. The BBC’s David Ornstein said it appeared that Semenya “had more left in the tank.” His story quoted BBC commentator Kelly Holmes, who won this event in the 2004 Olympics, suggesting that Semenya hadn’t made her best effort: “She looked very strong, she didn’t look like she went up a gear, she wasn’t grimacing at all. I don’t know if her head was in it, when she crossed the line she didn’t look affected.” Meanwhile, Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden tweeted that Semenya “seemed oddly disengaged most of race and not tired at end.”
I watched the race and Semenya’s finish was odd…she made her move super-late and was moving at a tremendous pace when she crossed the line. Had she worked her way up to the front before the final turn, she may have beaten the field by several lengths.
Perhaps there is nothing to her performance other than that she runs a more even pace than her rivals.
A comparison between her semi-final and this race is interesting in this regard. In that semi, she went through 400m in just over 58 seconds, 600m in about 1:28 and then closed the final 200m in 29.5s, looking like she had something in reserve.
Tonight, she went through 400m in 57.69s, then through 600m in about 1:27.1, and then closed in a touch over 30 seconds. My point is, her performance in the final was slightly faster at every stage than the semi, until she closed slower over the final 200m. To finish SLOWER than she did in the semi implies that she has little reserve and that she is closer to the limit than she looks. She wasn’t actually that fast over the final 200m, it’s just that everyone else was very slow!
Jesse Owens’ medal-winning exploits against the Aryan backdrop of the 1936 Olympics are well known, but I had never heard the story of his friendship with his German rival in the long jump. Owens explained in a 1960 Reader’s Digest piece:
Walking a few yards from the pit, I kicked disgustedly at the dirt. Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned to look into the friendly blue eyes of the tall German broad jumper. He had easily qualified for the finals on his first attempt. He offered me a firm handshake.
“Jesse Owens, I’m Luz Long. I don’t think we’ve met.” He spoke English well, though with a German twist to it.
“Glad to meet you,” I said. Then, trying to hide my nervousness, I added, “How are you?”
“I’m fine. The question is: How are you?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Something must be eating you,” he said-proud the way foreigners are when they’ve mastered a bit of American slang. “You should be able to qualify with your eyes closed.”
“Believe me, I know it,” I told him — and it felt good to say that to someone.
The shoes are fabricated using a selective laser sintering process that uses precise 3-D scans of an athlete’s foot to achieve maximum fit. The really tantalizing (but unfortunately uncited) bit about Fusaro’s design is that by fitting shoes to a sprinter’s feet so precisely, significant performance improvements might result:
Scientific investigations have shown that tuning the mechanical properties of a sprint shoe to the physical abilities of an athlete can improve performance by up to 3.5%.
For 100-meter world record holder Usain Bolt, a performance improvement of 3.5% could lower his world record to 9.24…just by wearing different shoes. That seems insane but Speedo’s LZR Racer suit that was responsible for dozens of world records falling in 2008 were shown to lower racing times by 1.9 to 2.2 percent so that sort of improvement is certainly possible. (via @curiousoctopus)
Scientists are studying older athletes, like 91-year-old track star Olga Kotelko, to see how their bodies react to exercise. There is emerging evidence that a key to staying healthier longer is not just exercise but intense training.
You don’t have to be an athlete to notice how ruthlessly age hunts and how programmed the toll seems to be. We start losing wind in our 40s and muscle tone in our 50s. Things go downhill slowly until around age 75, when something alarming tends to happen.
“There’s a slide I show in my physical-activity-and-aging class,” Taivassalo says. “You see a shirtless fellow holding barbells, but I cover his face. I ask the students how old they think he is. I mean, he could be 25. He’s just ripped. Turns out he’s 67. And then in the next slide there’s the same man at 78, in the same pose. It’s very clear he’s lost almost half of his muscle mass, even though he’s continued to work out. So there’s something going on.” But no one knows exactly what. Muscle fibers ought in theory to keep responding to training. But they don’t. Something is applying the brakes.
And then there is Olga Kotelko, who further complicates the picture, but in a scientifically productive way. She seems not to be aging all that quickly. “Given her rather impressive retention of muscle mass,” says Russ Hepple, a University of Calgary physiologist and an expert in aging muscle, “one would guess that she has some kind of resistance.” In investigating that resistance, the researchers are hoping to better understand how to stall the natural processes of aging.
It’s worth keeping in mind that there is a significant difference between the final seconds of Usain Bolt’s gold-medal run in Beijing in 2008 and the final seconds of his victory this afternoon in Call of Duty. In the video game, right up until the moment Sadiki took out the final terrorist, Bolt was on edge, nervous, uncertain. It taxed him. He almost lost.
Beating the video game was a challenge for him. Executing the most dominant and effortless performance in the history of the Olympic Games was not.
Ethan Siegel, a theoretical astrophysicist at Lewis & Clark College, recently charted a graph to demonstrate that, judging by the incremental progression of the 100-meter world record over the past hundred years, Bolt appears to be operating at a level approximately thirty years beyond that of the expected capabilities of modern man. Mathematically, Bolt belonged not in the 2008 Olympics but the 2040 Olympics. Michael Johnson, the hero of the 1996 Olympic summer games, has made the same point in a different way: A runner capable of beating Bolt, he says, “hasn’t been born yet.”
That 100-meter final at the Beijing Olympics still gives me goosebumps when I think about it. But all this business about no one being able to touch Bolt’s pace for another 30 years, that’s just bunk. The mark is out there. People are going to go for it. My prediction: Bolt will continue to break his own mark but someone else will approach or equal Bolt’s current record in fewer than five years, if not three.
Ariel Levy did a piece on runner Caster Semenya for the New Yorker this week. Semenya’s competition eligibility is up in the air because the IAAF (the worldwide governing body for track and field) can’t decide whether she is a woman or a man.
She didn’t look like an eighteen-year-old girl, or an eighteen-year-old boy. She looked like something else, something magnificent.
At the track and field world championships in Germany this evening, Usain Bolt set another world record in the 100-meters: 9.58 seconds, besting his previous record of 9.69. Can he go under 9.5?
Update:Here’s the race in HD. It’s a lot closer than the Olympic final…Gay was really hauling as well. The Times reports that the 0.11 seconds Bolt shaved off the record was the largest difference since the advent of electronic timing in 1977.
But second off, you can also see that Usain Bolt is running much faster than humans ought to be running right now. This should give you an inkling of just how special these performances we’re seeing from him are. We shouldn’t be seeing times like this until the 2030s. Which means, honestly, that it ought to take around 30 years for someone else to come along and break his record.
Yesterday, Usain Bolt broke the unofficial record at the rarely contested distance of 150 meters, running it in 14.35 seconds on a temporary surface set up in Manchester’s city center. This sounds made up, but here’s the video.
Some physicists have worked out what Usain Bolt’s time in the 100 meters in Beijing would have been if he hadn’t started celebrating before the finish line: 9.55 seconds. The original paper is here. I tried doing this the day after the race but even the HD footage wasn’t good enough to see the tick marks on the track and I didn’t want to mess around with all the angles. (via justin blanton)
I don’t know if that’s a translation or what, but non-native speakers of English often express ideas more beautifully than native speakers do (Nabokov for example).
Somewhat related…how perfect is the name of the US women’s soccer team goalkeeper: Hope Solo.
Update: I need a do-over on this one. First of all, Nabokov is a native English speaker; in fact, he could read and write English before he could Russian. Second, the NY Times modified the quote in that article! When I read it, the selection above was a direct quote attributed to Spotakova. Now the passage reads:
“Aug. 21 is a very special day for the Czech Republic — it’s the 40th anniversary of the Soviet invasion in 1968,” she said afterward. “I of course had a Russian competitor against me. She was winning with such a long throw,” she added, and said she wondered if she’d be able to turn the date to her advantage.
That’s much less poetic…I wonder if there was a translation misunderstanding or something. (thx, dan & nivan)
Eyeballing the chart would suggest that the cutting edge of human achievement in the 200m is anything sub-19.7. A 19.59 at Beijing would be phenomenal. Then you scroll down — way down — and you hit Johnson’s 19.32.
Johnson has stated that he’s fully prepared for Usain Bolt to break his record.
Runners in lane eight got off the mark on average about 150 milliseconds after runners in lane one, Dapena found. A time delay of that magnitude translates to about a metre’s difference at the finish line.