The physical ability that comes from sacrifice, determination and a grueling fitness schedule is awe-inspiring to Olympic audiences. But, alas, sports researchers suggests we should put our thrill in perspective noting a decline in world record breaking. GE’s data visualization team partnered with R/GA design firm to decide if the killjoys were justified, analyzing over 100 years of world records data. Their research discerned interesting patterns in Olympic record breaking and suggest we may have even more to cheer about in the near future.
Peter Keating’s ESPN article, “The Great Stagnation,” cited research that concluded Olympic athletes have been breaking world records less often because they “have reached their biological limits.” According to this logic, Rebecca Soni’s recent world record for the 200-meter breaststroke is the exception that proves the rule as “world records are now decades old” in many Olympics events like men’s long jump (1991) and discus throw (1986). Even though superstar swimmer Michael Phelps set 7 world records in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he hasn’t outperformed a global time since 2009. GE’s interactive visualization allows users to identify peak and decline periods of men and women’s world records over time according to sport, duration held and geography.
GE researchers reviewed published data sets and recent event results from individual sporting federations to create a database spanning 1900 to 2012. Data includes 3,400 records, from 152 events and 6 sports, representing 71 countries. The findings indicate a pattern in world records and key sports in which women athletes excel. GE notes: “World records come in waves, similar to longer periods of economic boom punctuated by shorter recessions.” In 1999, athletes broke the most records in a single year with 112 first-time achievements. The second highest world records in one year occurred nine years later, in 2008, when 94 records were broken in summer events. According to researchers: “Many of the recent records were set by women in disciplines like pole vaulting and weightlifting.”
Although GE’s analysis doesn’t contradict, but rather puts other analyses in perspective, GE’s researchers have drawn more hopeful conclusions in light of the pressing questions of if, when and how Olympians will break the general plateau? Geoffroy Berthelot of the Parisian sports research institute, INSEP, research of competitions from 1896 to 2007 found that peak scores did not improve “in 64 percent of track and field events after 1993.” While Berthelot predicts that for most sports “human species’ physiological frontiers will be reached” around 2027, GE researchers suggest, “if history is any guide, we may be on the verge of a new bumper crop.”
View GE’s full interactive visualization here.