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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Top 8 of 08: Number 1

Number 1: The limits to human performance

It took 9.69 seconds, on 16 August, 2008, for Usain Bolt to blitz his way into the record books. (Some say he'd have run 9.55 seconds had he not celebrated, but that was Number 4 on our list!)

Only four days later, on 20 August, he covered 200m in 19.30 seconds, to solidify what was fast becoming the greatest sprint Games in history - he'd put the cherry on top a few days later by running the second leg of a world record breaking Jamaican 4 x 100m relay team.

Then, just over one month later, at the other extreme of track and field, Haile Gebrselassie became the first man to crack 2:04 for the marathon, running 2:03:59 on the streets of Berlin.

The world was suddenly abuzz with talk of the limits to human performance. All in all, 13 world records were broken in 2008 - a big year (though not compared to swimming, with its 108 records!). By the way, if you fancy a general knowledge quiz, name the 13 world records...? The answers are at the end of this post...hint: there are 7 for men, 6 for women)

How fast could man (and woman) still go? Everyone weighed in - the athletes, the coaches, the agents, the meeting promoters. Most got massively carried away - the sub 2-hour marathon, they sang, was only years away. Sub-19 seconds was next for the 200m. Never mind that it's taken ten years to knock the last minute or 0.02 seconds off the marathon and 200m records respectively! What's another 4 minutes or 0.30 seconds between friends!

The hype was enormous. But, the truth is, it's been that way the whole year, perhaps spurred on by the Olympic Games. And it's for that reason that the limits to human performance takes the Number 1 slot on the countdown!

The Olympic flame - a beacon for performance limits

Since it was an Olympic year, this kind of discussion is expected - Olympic athletes, at the very leading edge of human physiology (and sometimes over it, aided by some doping!), are always a beacon to human performance limits.

The year began, in fact, with a study looking at the limits to the world records in a number of different sports.

That study, done by IRMES in France, was very cautious. In fact, it suggested that within our lifetimes, the records would hit a ceiling beyond which they would no longer be broken. For example, half of the records were predicted to max out by 2027, while all of them would have reached the limit by 2060.

This research used a mathematical model to track changes in the 3,260 world recors set since 1896, and then estimated that athletes were operating at 75 per cent of their potential in 1896, while in 2008, they would be operating at 99 per cent.

"By 2027 the athletes in about half of the events will have reached 100 per cent, and by 2060 they all will. After that the only way a world record is likely to be broken is if the athlete is on industrial amounts of steroids or a product of genetic doping, or indeed both" (which is, of course, not beyond the realm of possibility! Of course, some will argue that many of the records already are aided by industrial amounts of steroids!)

A debate inspired by great Olympic performances

I can't possibly summarize all the discussion around the world records in this review post - Bolt was the first to open discussions with his 9.69 second performance (to follow his 9.72 sec performance from New York earlier in the year). The 100m event is, of course, the focal point of track and field for many, and so garnered enormous coverage. The fact that Bolt left something on the track also provoked lively discussion. It was quite clear that the limit had not arrived yet, thanks to Bolt's celebrations and the time he lost. The question was "How much faster could he have gone on the day, and in the future?" It made for interesting discussion.

Little of it was scientific, though. There was one 'scientific' contribution - perhaps the most bizarre contribution of the year, when a professor of biomechanics named Peter Weyand volunteered that since Cheetahs can run 100m in six seconds, humans are nowhere near their limits (seriously). That same Peter Weyand's other contribution to 2008 was the defence of Oscar Pistorius, which I wrote about yesterday

The marathon - the other focal point lights up

Then the other focal point of athletics, the marathon, got involved, thanks to Haile Gebrselassie's amazing 2:03:59. Last year, Geb ran 2:04:26 in Berlin, and the same kind of discussion ensued - when would man dip under 2 hours? This talk is of course massively premature, it is still 4 minutes away, and given how the margins by which world records are broken is likely to become ever smaller, it was a case of getting slightly carried away.

However, Geb's 2008 world record got the same debate going. At the same time, a young Kenyan, Sammy Wanjiru, had run 2:06:32 in hot, humid conditions during a competitive marathon in Beijing (for which he got Number 6 on our Top 8 list). So not only could we debate Geb's great marathon, but we could discuss whether in fact Wanjiru's performance was even better? If so, then the world record would be in for a revision in the not too distant future, adding fuel to the discussion

The next scientific study - humans vs dogs and horses

Then, in late November, the next study came along, which neatly provided the other bookend to 2008, to go along with the French Irmes study I mentioned earlier.

This study, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, was done by Mark Denny, and it used the rather novel idea of comparing human running performance to that of horses and dogs. However, unlike the earlier efforts of Weyand to compare man to cheetahs, Denny used a mathetmatical analysis that provided some very interesting predictions. His broad finding is that horses and dogs reached a limit in the 1970's, and the winning time at the Kentucky Derby, for example, has not improved in over 30 years.

Humans have however continued to improve, which provides the basis for the model to predict where that improvement might end up. For example:

  • He predicts that the 100m world record for men will one day peak at 9.48 seconds. That's perhaps 2, maybe 3 generations away (given the assumption that each generation might take 0.07 to 0.10 seconds off it - that's off course open to change). It therefore agrees with the French study, suggesting a limit by 2030, or thereabouts.
  • It predicts that the women's 100m world record will come to rest at 10.19 seconds. This is, in my opinion, unrealistic, and is not going to happen. Remember that the current record of 10.47 seconds, has stood for 20 years, and more importantly, no one has even come close. The closest was Marion Jones, who got to within about 0.2 seconds of it (a lifetime in sprinting), but we all know what her secret was. I feel the model fails on this event, at least.
  • The men's marathon record stands to improve by between 2min7s and 4min23s. The latter would give us the sub-2 hour time, but it's anyone's guess how long that would take. My feeling (and this is all it is), is that I won't see a sub-2:02 time in my lifetime. I posted the reasons why in this post, for those who are interested in a more logical approach to the question.
  • The women's marathon record limit exists at 2:12:42. Given that the current record stands at 2:15:25, we're looking at about 2 to 3 minutes' improvement as well. Again, how long this will take is not known, but seems reasonable.
All in all, I think that the two mathematical models brought out in 2008, first by the French group, and then by Denny, agree pretty closely with one another, and are probably about as accurate as one can expect for this kind of "crystal ball" exercise.

I am always reminded of the time that some scientists, back in the 1980's, looked at the men's and women's marathon records, and predicted that women would be beating men by 2000 because the women's record was improving at a faster rate than the men's!

These mathematical models are always hazardous, but good fun and interesting conversation starters. 2009 will probably not produce too many more of them - a non-Olympic year. But, given the hype around world records in 2008, maybe we need some time to test the predictions!

2009 - how many world records?

As for 2009, how many world records can we expect? We might well get one in January, when Haile Geb runs another time-trial, err, marathon, this time in Dubai, chasing a huge pay-day. Geb has made a marathon career out of running paced time-trials for records, and Dubai 2008 nearly provided a record, but he went off way too fast and lost big time in the second half. If he gets it right, there's no reason why we can't have a record in January.

Next comes the spring marathon season, and especially London, where a world class field will assemble. It includes Martin Lel and Sammy Wanjiru, the two men who I believe will both break 2:04 next. It will also feature Zersenay Tadese, who will be the next giant of the marathon - he will make up the big 6 along with the two Kenyans, Gebrselassie and Tsegay Kebede (you saw it here first!)

The problems in London are the weather (it's often gusty, especially along the river at the end), the course (twisty in areas), and the competition, which, paradoxically, makes it less likely the record will go - the top men will watch each other and lose seconds as they did in 2008. So I think it'll be fast, but not a record.

Then we have track and field season. Once again, on the women's side, it's the pole-vault and middle distances where records COULD fall. In particular, I'll be watching to see if Pamela Jelimo can find another second of improvement and break the 800m record.

For the men, there is Bolt, and possibly Asafa Powell in the sprints, and Robles in the hurdles, but that's about it - I don't see much chance of a Bekele record, but who knows?

Whatever happens, if it warrants analysis, we'll do it in '09!

That wraps up the Top 8 of '08 series, which I hope you've enjoyed. If it's stimulated some discussion, or even a read or two of posts that you may have missed this year, then it's done its job!

We'll take a break for a few days, over the Christmas break and then do some more light-hearted posts between Christmas and New Year!

I know many of you will be heading off for holidays, or spending time away from your computers, and so let me take this chance to thank you for your readership, your support, your emails and comments during 2008! You are all the vindication of our effort, thank you, and God Bless over this Festive season!


P.S. The answer to our "quiz" question from above. There were 13 world recorsd this year. They were:

  • The 100 metres (twice, by Usain Bolt);
  • The 200 metres (Bolt, again);
  • The marathon (Haile Gebrselassie);
  • The 110 metre hurdles (Dayron Robles);
  • The 4 x 100 metre relay (Bolt, again, with some Jamaican company);
  • The 50 km walk (Denis Nizhegorodov).
  • The 5,000 metres (Tirunesh Dibaba);
  • The 3,000 metres steeplechase (Gulnara Galkina);
  • The javelin (Barbora Spotakova);
  • The pole vault (thrice, by who else but Elena Isinbaeva).


Anonymous said...

Bolt ran the third leg in Beijing and WR of W100m is 10.49.

Anonymous said...

your point about the woman's 100 meter record 10.49 is irrelevant. i was just reading about florence joyner (flojo) the other day and she was juiced out of her mind too, more than marion jones even

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous

Not sure what you mean by that - what point? The point is, if you read it again, is that the current world record (which I did mistype as 10.47, not 10.49 - my bad, sorry) for women is already beyond reach, and that's with drugs. So to predict that it will come down to 10.19s (as the prediction does) is crazy. The juiced record is beyond record already - how much more is a time of 10.19s?

That was the point, I'm not sure what you're referring to?


Anonymous said...

Hi Ross,

Just finished reading the top 8.

If you re-read the comments, I think the 2nd Anonymous poster was responding to the 1st Anonymous's post, that one of "his" points is irrelevant.

Happy New Year...

Anonymous said...

really, huh. flojo was "juiced out of her mind"?

show me the proof or close your mouth.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ross

Great series on the top 8 of 08!

Number one is freakishly topical for me at the moment as I just picked up a secondhand copy of the '85 Lore of Running from a fleamarket and have been flipping the "Limits to running performance" Chapter between Xmas Lunch and new years drinks.

Some of the earlier predictions such as Ryder, Carr and Herget (1976) were overly aggressive and called for a 9.56 100m and a 2:00 flat marathon by 2004. Clearly a bit ambitious!

Morton (1983) made a few predictions on track events based upon fitting asymptotic equations to the record progressions and forecasting. A few seem to be close to the mark 25 years down the line, as he had the 100m pegged at 9.68 by the year 2010 (I guess Morton didn't calculate Bolt to celebrate either in his 9.69).

According to the model, the ultimate for the 100m is to be 9.15, but this will not occur for the next few hundred years.

A few other close matches from 2010 are:

1500m - Prediction: 3:25.4, Current: 3:26 Ultimate: 3:05.7

800m - Prediction: 1:40.1, Current: 1:41.11 Ultimate: 1:33

400m - Prediction: 43.01, Current: 43.18 Ultimate: 39.33

Some ultimates seem very aggressive, but perhaps Morton is factoring in a Speedo LZR racer to be released for the track late in the year 2132.

Ta for the posts... keep em coming.


Anonymous said...

your point about the woman's 100 meter record 10.49 is irrelevant. i was just reading about florence joyner (flojo) the other day and she was juiced out of her mind too, more than marion jones even