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Monday, July 27, 2009

Progression of World Records

Over at Let's Run there's a thread titled Progression of World Records seems to be screeching to a holt [sic]. There's some pretty good discussion mixed in with the usual idiocy. As usual, the numbers on their face must be viewed with some perspective. (My wife knows a stats prof who doesn't plan some of his lectures, but rather opens up USA Today and says "what claptrap are they peddling this time?")

First off, there used to be more world records set because there were more events. Up through 1976 the IAAF had metric and imperial running events in everything, whereas now the only non-Frenchy distance we do is the mile. Even if you only consider the metric distances way back when, you have to realize that they were often "weak" records in relation to their imperial counterparts. The metric records weren't often "maxed-out" by an American because he might run that distance just a few times in a four-year period. There's also the issue of tieing records, which was common in the era of tenth-of-a-second timing.

Records were often thrown out and not ratified due to various insufficiencies: not enough timers, a venue that was downhill or a track that was an inch or two short, and so forth. These seem trivial now, but it wasn't so long ago that people had to put down lane lines and so forth by hand with chalk, and getting it just exactly right was no easy task.

Another thing that has changed is the population we're drawing from. Prior to WWII, the world of athletics was pretty much the USA, Europe, and the white portions of the British Empire. Neither China, the Soviet Union, or the vastness of Latin America and Africa were part of the scene.

All of these things changed at once in the 70s and 80s, along with an accelerated inclusion of women and an explosion in the use of drugs. Anti-doping efforts have really gotten somewhere in the last few years, and all these other changes--wider population, better equipment, standardization, longer careers through professionalization--have reached a point of stasis. No new things, fewer new records.

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