Incredible feats and the impact of technological advances
When it comes to sporting achievements, the progression amongst athletes over the past century and beyond has been nothing short of remarkable. World and Olympic records are broken with astonishing regularity at major competitions and it begs the question; Just how much of this is down to the athletes and how much is due to technological advances within the sport?!
A great documentary highlighting this is Amazon- The Equalizer
Just looking at the numbers will paint the picture when it comes to speed. In 1936, Jesse Owens ran the 100m in a then-world-leading 10.2 seconds. When compared to the current 9.58 seconds set by Usain Bolt in 2009, the margin, in terms of 100m times, is significant. When it is considered however that Bolt’s time came on a synthetic purpose-built running track with custom made spikes for grip and custom made starting blocks for explosive power off the line, the 0.62 seconds’ difference doesn’t look quite as substantial. Jesse Owens’ time of 10.2 was ran on cinders (the ash from burnt wood), sapping energy on the soft surface, whilst using a gardening trowel that had been used to level the track as a starting block.
Over a longer distance, the first sub-4-minute-mile by Sir Roger Bannister was completed in 1954. Again, this was run on cinders however with less than 1500 people having ever achieved the feat, can technology alone be the reason for such a number over the past 40 years?
The Marathon has long been perceived as one of the toughest races possible. 26.2 miles worth of running that has, in the past, claimed lives. Back in 1904, the Marathon at the Summer Olympics was won in a time of 3:28:53. In 2019 in Vienna, Eliud Kipchoge ran the same distance in an astonishing 1:59:40, an average pace of 4:34 per mile or 21.1kph.
Such an astonishing achievement is the culmination of an 8-year challenge by Kipchoge in which he has teamed up with Nike to complete the feat however his achievement will not stand as a record.
For the achievement, Nike produced a custom-made version of their Vaporfly shoes, then unavailable on the market for Kipchoge. The financial support of a world-leading sports innovator in Nike provided the platform upon which Kipchoge could target this world-first. A study done by researchers unaffiliated with Nike found that the shoes improved runners’ energy efficiency by 4%. The event was custom-made for Kipchoge with no other competitions allowed to compete. There were a series of pace-setters, a course with just 2.4 metres of incline, an unlimited supply of drinks and energy gels, a car that pointed out the optimum position on the road to run with lasers and even a weather-optimised start date to provide optimal weather conditions and climate to run.
With such a remarkable array of technological advancements at his disposal, the IAAF decided the the event results would not be sanctioned. In spite of this, the advances demonstrated by Nike have resulted in their latest offering; the Nike Air Zoom Alphafly Next% Eliud Kipchoge.
These feats are not, however, restricted simply to running.
100m freestyle World Records have been steadily trending faster since the 1940’s. Within this trajectory however, there are clear drops in time that can be accompanied by the introduction of a technological advancement. In 1956, the tumble-turn, now commonplace in the sport, drastically reduced the World Record time. In 1976, gutters on the side of the pool drained off excess water to reduce the turbulent lanes swimmers would otherwise have to swim in. In 2008, full-body, low-friction swim suits, such as the LZR Racer, played another huge part in reducing the World Record times throughout the sport, with 25 records tumbling at the Beijing Olympic Games.
Outside of individual sports, team sports have seen a similar influx of technological advancements. Cricket bats have been made thicker, deeper and stronger in recent years, owing to the increased demand for runs and subsequently big scoring shots. Spartan’s Limited Edition Range and Kookaburra’s renowned big middles are all prime examples of the evolution of power, size and weight distribution in the modern bat.
In football, the demand for lighter and more explosive footwear with even more extravagant designs has produced an ever-changing and continually evolving offering of football boot. Virgil Van Dijk’s Nike Tiempo Legends, Trent Alexander-Arnold’s Under Armour Magnetico Range, Kevin De Bruyne’s Nike Phantom Elite’s and Heung Min-Son’s Adidas F50 X Ghosted all demonstrate the vast differences in shape, mould, grip and design available in the modern game today.
There can be no denying the advancements in technology and the impact they have had within sporting achievements of the modern era. Scientists have predicted a 1.5% impact on performance with running on a track of cinder and a synthetic custom-made running track. Whilst not a huge amount, when Jesse Owens’ 10.2 seconds 100m time is compared to Usain Bolts’ 9.77 seconds that won him the 2013 World Championships in Moscow, that’s enough to put Jesse Owens from 14ft behind Bolt at the line, to within one stride.
Whilst not the sole reason for which the advancement of sporting performance can be assigned, the impact of technology within modern sport has been remarkable. When coupled with the progression of human and athletic performance, the the feats achieved within modern sport, as an entity, has truly demonstrated the improvement over the past century.
In the second part of this blog, we’ll be looking into the impact of human development over the past century and offer and insight into the other side of the question of athletic development between the athlete and the equipment.