The Bolt Effect: How chasing Usain Bolt made the world run faster
Pursuit of the world's best sprinter has forced competition to be quicker than ever just to keep up
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; twice commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigative journalism. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Friday 23 March 2012
He is the fastest man on two legs, the greatest sprinter of all time – and Usain Bolt can also claim another superlative. He alone has caused the other top athletes in the world to run faster.
Scientists are calling it the "Usain Bolt Effect" because he has significantly improved the average performance of the world's top sprinters, who are now suddenly running about 1 per cent faster than they did prior to Bolt's explosive appearance in 2008 – a significant margin at this distance.
The reason? The sprinters are basically just trying harder to keep up with the competition.
Bolt holds the world 100-metres record of 9.58 seconds but believes he is capable of 9.4 seconds.
An analysis of the average speeds for the 100m sprint by the top 25 athletes over the past century shows a sudden and consistent improvement in performance over the past four years.
"We see in 2008 what we call the Usain Bolt Effect," said Professor Steve Haake of Sheffield Hallam University, who has analysed the records of every international 100m track event since 1888. "It is a little jump in performance when he appeared in that year. If we look at the top 25 sprinters and take Usain Bolt out of that list, so that you just analyse the other 24, you still get this step change.
"What's happened is that he's come on the block and the peer competition is such that everyone has improved."A graph of finishing times since 1888 shows an overall and consistent improvement with each decade. For instance, the average 100m event is now being run about 10 per cent faster than in 1948, Professor Haake said.
"The Usain Bolt Effect improved overall performance of the top 25 sprinters by 0.9 per cent, so almost 1 per cent. When you think that this entire performance index improved in total by 10 per cent since 1948, it is quite extraordinary that the Usain Bolt Effect accounts for a significant proportion of that improvement," he said.
The World Wars and the Korean conflict of the early 1950s resulted in significantly slower speeds, probably because athletes could not train and the pool of talent was made smaller. Another significant milestone came in 2000 with the formation of the World Anti-Doping Agency, which appeared to halt the overall improvements in performance.
But Professor Haake believes further improvements in average performance will still be possible. "All performances in sport are levelling off and inevitably people ask, 'are we at the limit?' The answer is, 'no, not yet', but we're probably coming up to the limits of human physiology."
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