The science behind Olympic records
By Kayla Britt, MS&T Editor
Every four years, millions of people tune in to watch highly-skilled and well-trained athletes compete in high-stake competitions. The Olympic Games, which have ties to ancient Greece, were expanded in the 1980s to include professional athletes. They are arguably the most prominent sports competitions in the world today. The Olympics are an opportunity for athletes to shatter stereotypes surrounding gender, race, and culture, with some prominent athletes like Simone Biles and Michael Phelps reaching near celebrity status.
Up until the 1980s, women were held back from competing in many events, including the marathon, as women were not believed to be capable of enduring long, strenuous races. They were also excluded from track and field entirely until 1928. In 1966, Roberta Gibb made a feminist statement by unofficially competing in the Boston Marathon. She and other women who set records for the marathon in the sixties paved the way for records in years to come.
Still, some health experts claimed that running the marathon would be detrimental to women’s well-being. However, in 1980 the American College of Sports Medicine gave a statement supporting the effort, stating that there “is no scientific or medical evidence that long-distance running is [harmful] for the healthy, trained female athlete.” The IOC finally voted in 1981 to allow women to participate in the marathon race, after years of effort and fighting for women’s rights and abilities from many individuals.
Records broken in other sports can be attributed to technical advancements and research. In 1968, U.S. Olympian Dick Fosbury won a gold medal competing in the high jump using the Fosbury flop. Later, athletes using the same technique would go on to break the high jump world record.
Other changes, like the decision to allow polyurethane swimsuits in 2008 (which were then banned in 2010), also led to new records. The new swimsuits were designed to improve buoyancy by including small gas pockets embedded in the material. The effect was less drag and faster swimming times. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, 23 world records were broken by swimmers wearing the swimsuits.
It is likely that records will plateau as the International Association of Athletics Federation cracks down on drug violations and athletes are reaching their maximum performance capabilities.