Racing towards our limits

Men’s Olympic record progression on the track

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If today’s athletes had competed in the 1908 London Games, they would have appeared superhuman.

The winner of the men’s 5,000m in Beijing 2008 ran at a pace that would have won the 1,500m in 1908, while the winner of the women’s marathon would have won the 1908 men’s race by half an
hour.

What explains this enormous leap in human physical achievement? In short, the development and availability of training facilities, technological and medical advances, and the application of sport science have enabled an increasingly professionalised body of athletes to reach
their potential. Meanwhile, the growth in participation among Asian and African countries, and the development of similar organisations, competition calendars and regulations among nations, has increased
competitiveness.

Political factors have had an effect on record development over the years. Few men’s records were set at the Olympics immediately following the World Wars (1920 and 1948), as casualties limited the number of available male contenders and
training regimes were disrupted. Famous boycotts by the US and USSR in 1980 and 1984 respectively hindered record progression at these Games.

Location has played a role too. In the 1968 Olympics at Mexico City, the
high altitude produced a slew of new short-distance records and a long-jump of 8.90m that remains the longeststanding Olympic record, but inhibited performance over longer distances. Before World War II, 80% of world records were set by athletes running in their native country; now that world travel
is less arduous, athletes can compete at their best wherever they are in the world: today, fewer than a quarter of records are set ‘at home’.

‘Nothing is impossible’, runs the cliché. But there are clearly limits on human capabilities, and a host of academic studies insist that performance gains have stagnated since 1988. Nonetheless, with four world and six Olympic records broken on the track alone at Beijing in 2008, expectations will remain high that human speed and endurance can be pushed to still dizzier heights at London
2012.

Ever faster
The chart shows the average speed run, in mph, to achieve Olympic men’s records at each distance since 1908. Kinks in the line indicate new records at that Olympics. The records themselves in 1908 and as they stand currently are also shown.

The chart shows the average speed run, in mph, to achieve Olympic  mens records at each distance since 1908

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