When will world records end?

Ever since I was a kid, watching the Olympics on TV, I’ve been fascinated by world records; how they’re broken and why, and why it’s only ever by a pretty small amount.

The first one I remember watching was Kieran Perkins 1500m Freestyle world record at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. This was incidentally the first Olympics I can wholly remember (a benchmark question for any generational pigeonholing), and it wouldn’t have been long after watching this that I would have asked my Dad – the keeper of all knowledge at that time – how fast can someone swim 1500m? His response, no doubt, would have been something suspiciously specific like “Twelve minutes, 57 seconds and 48 milliseconds.” This was somewhat similar to his stock-standard response of “trick photography” to our endless onslaught of questions about how they made cool special effects on TV or movies.

But clearly, you can’t run 100m in one second, or two or even three seconds, so the question has always plagued me: when will world records stop being broken?

A friend that works as a strength-and-conditioning coach at the VIS was telling me that breaking the four-minute mile was thought to be a physical impossibility, until Roger Bannister ran 3 min 59.4 in 1954. In the months that followed, a handful others also broke the barrier (including Australian, John Landy, who thought Bannister would be the first), so obviously psychology has something to do with pushing past a seemingly unsurpassable line. But where does the line end, and can we predict it?

Taking the 100m sprint as our example, many physiologists and mathematicians have attempted to model where this end-point might be. Mark Denny, a biologist from Stanford University has used statistical models incorporating the fastest 100m race times from over 100 years to postulate a potential human speed limit. Denny has calculated that humans could run at a speed of up to 10.55 m/s; that’s a 9.47 second 100m sprint (the current world record stands at 9.58 seconds). Denny says not even the 6-foot-5 freak of nature that is Usain Bolt can cast doubt on his predictions.

So will we keep watching despite knowing there’s going to be an inevitable end? Yes, definitely; watching humans at the peak of their abilities in any discipline is always beautiful and inspiring. Will we keep trying to break world records despite knowing there must be limits to our feats? Yes, definitely; isn’t that what life is all about?

8 Responses to “When will world records end?”

  1. ashcornell says:

    Interesting post Hayley. It’s something we probably all think about at some point (when records will stop being broken). The statistical model on 100m engaged me too and it made me wonder if eventually we’ll have at least a few recordholders sitting on a time of 9.50s or something. If this model was correct, it would be amusing to see a dozen or so recordholders at 9.47s for the 100m sprint.

  2. canewton says:

    Great post! I never really thought about there being a point where world records couldn’t be broken. I guess there must be such a low probability that somebody could run 100m in the 9.47 that Denny calculated (without taking any sort of enhancement drugs). So, Olympic runners should have something to strive towards for quite a while. The competition is also pretty exciting even if no-one breaks a record.

  3. hayleyb says:

    He does touch on that in his discussion, and I think it’s a really interesting point. So many world records were broken in the Speedo suits; it will be interesting to see if many of them will fall in the near future, since they’ve changed the rules as to what swimmers are allowed to wear (check FINA website). He was mainly focusing on running – but all the world records are fascinating!

  4. crtaylor says:

    Has he looked into the use of the “super suits” in the pool? Or equivalent technology for runners (I’m guessing having slightly springy spikes would enhance sprinters’ times). Would be interesting to better understand the correlation between technology and athlete performance. Really interesting read.

  5. hayleyb says:

    That’s definitely an interesting thought – Denny has excluded any questionable times due to potential drug cheating, however it would be interesting to see if such a statistical method could be used to weed out the cheats! Something to look into!

  6. ccroft says:

    I to used to wonder about whether records would keep getting broken as a kid. I never knew though that people had tried to calculate this, i think it can legitimately work. really interesting, thanks for sharing!!!

  7. meghanb says:

    Great post Hayley – I was just wondering, does Denny’s human speed limit count for athletes taking performance enhancing supplements too? Might be a good way to catch the cheats if they start doing times of 9.46!

  8. smcnabb says:

    What an interesting read! Pity for all those budding athletes out there that have big ambitions of breaking world records, but that’s life I suppose.