Athletics: Record industry will run and run

Athletics: With three world marks broken already this season, experts wonder how long today's achievements will stand
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The Independent Online
SIXTY-FIVE years ago, Brutus Hamilton, a track and field coach at the University of California, published predictions of how far every athletic record could be taken. Mistake.

Every ultimate mark set down by this former Olympic decathlete - for example the seven foot two inch (2.20 metres) high jump and the four-minute mile - has long since been surpassed. It was merely a case of "et tu Brutus". He was not the first, and will not be the last, to have trussed himself up as a hostage to fortune in this way.

When Bob Beamon launched himself through the thin air of Mexico to an outlandish new long-jump record at the 1968 Olympics, the statisticians fell into the pit with him. "That was regarded as the ultimate," recalls Richard Hymans, the joint author of the International Amateur Athletic Federation's official book on the progression of world-best performances. "No one thought that distance could be beaten until well into the 21st century. Then along came Carl Lewis and Mike Powell..."

At the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo, one of the most gripping personal contests ever witnessed in an athletics arena saw the American rivals push each other into surpassing the mark of their compatriot, with Lewis recording 8.91m wind-assisted and Powell taking the gold with 8.95.

Already this season three new world records have been established - Tomas Dvorak has raised the decathlon mark to 8,994 points, Maurice Greene has taken 0.05sec off the world 100m best in lowering it to 9.79sec, and Hicham El Guerrouj has set a new mile time of 3min 43.13sec.

From a historical perspective, Hymans was able to detect only two overall trends in the setting of world records; men stayed ahead of women, and the general improvement of times and distances is continually slowing up. The perennial question which caused Hamilton and so many others to speculate - how much further can it all go? - remains unanswered and, perhaps, unanswerable.

Stan Greenberg one of the sports leading statisticians recalls being present when Harold Abrahams, winner of the 1924 Olympic 100m title, was asked in later life where he thought the 100m world record would end up. Abrahams replied: "Anywhere between where it is now and nil is open."

Greene's dramatic improvement of the time earlier this season engendered a flurry of speculation about how much faster man could go. Greene's coach, John Smith, pointed out at the time that the record had been set with the benefit of virtually no wind-assistance. With a legal two metre per second wind behind him, Smith reckoned, Greene would have run around 9.63sec. Even El Guerrouj's mile record in Rome earlier this month offered up the possibility of improvement. Many observers felt the Moroccan was not at his peak having missed training earlier in the season through injury.

And, at least in terms of one standard statistical device, his performance did not match up to the one he had given in the metric mile on the same track a year earlier, when he lowered the 1500m record to 3min 26.00sec. According to Hymans, the two distances are compared by adding on time in proportion to the difference in distances - 7.32 per cent - and building in a small factor to take into consideration fatigue. You can either multiply the 1500m time by 1.08, or the mile time by 0.926. Thus a 3min 26sec 1500m corresponds to a 3:42.48 mile. El Guerrouj must have been slacking.

When even current records appear capable of improvement, the long-term picture is almost too difficult to comprehend. "When you realise what improvements there have been over the last 100 years, the mind boggles at what can happened over the next century," Greenberg said. "Half the world doesn't take sport seriously at the moment. I believe political and economic improvements will open up floodgates of people coming into the sporting picture. Forget drugs - this will be far more profound than any advance through pharmacological advantages."

Greenberg points to areas of untapped human sporting resource, particularly female resource, in India, South America and the Muslim world. "Obviously the most difficult area to improve upon is in events like the 100m," he said. "I don't think a man is ever going to run it in eight seconds. But when you look at the trends it may be that people are going to be able to sustain their speed over longer distances."

Richard Godfrey, Chief Physiologist at the British Olympic Medical Centre at Northwick Park, believes future athletic advances will be brought about by a combination of genetic factors, diet and improved training methods. "The trends show that people throughout the world are getting bigger. This is clearly linked to diet. If you ask the question how much further can record breaking go, the honest answer is that nobody knows. As soon as you impose limits someone will exceed them."

Godfrey has experienced the phenomenon often at first hand in his work with Britain's elite sporting talent. "The physiological text books will tell you that the maximum oxygen intake you can expect in someone at the peak of fitness is between 51/2 and 53/4 litres per minute. But some of the British Olympic rowing squad who train here regularly exceed that mark and one was recently recorded as utilising 81/2 litres of oxygen in a minute. If I told that to some of my colleagues they wouldn't believe me."

Certain basic facts, however, stand in the way of endless human progression in this area. Godfrey points out that creatures such as dogs and horses will always have a greater oxygen-using capacity because their heart usually exceeds one per cent of their total weight while for humans that figure is around 0.5 per cent.

The number of factors which come to bear in the business of world-record performances is bewildering. Hymans reels off some of them straight off the top of his head: diet, the gradual evolution of the human species, bio-rhythms, and finer measurements.

While statisticians agree that relatively new events such as the women's pole vault and hammer will see a rapid improvement over the next 25 years, other women's events - particularly the throwing records established during the Eighties in a period where some regimes were operating systemised drug-taking - are likely to stand for a long time.

But the prediction game goes on, and the statisticians are always willing to lay their opinions on the line. So, for the record, another leading statistician, Peter Matthews, editor of the International Track and Field Annual, believes that the 100m mark will stand at 9.65sec in 25 years, while the mile time will be 3min 40.50sec. Et tu Peter? Only time will tell...




100yr 10.8 Cecil Lee (GB)* 1892

50yr 10.2 Jesse Owens (US)* 1936

25yr 9.95 Jim Hines (US) 1968

Now 9.79 Maurice Greene (US) 1999


100yr 21.4 James Maybury (US) 1897

50yr 20.7 Jesse Owens (US)* 1936

25yr 19.83 Tommie Smith (US) 1968

Now 19.32 Michael Johnson (US) 1996


100yr 48.5 Edgar Bredin (GB) 1895

50yr 45.9 Herb McKenley (Jam) 1948

25yr 43.86 Lee Evans (US) 1968

Now 43.29 Butch Reynolds (US) 1988


100yr 1:53.4 Charles Kilpatrick (US) 1895

50yr 1:46.6 Rudolf Harbig (Ger) 1939

25yr 1:43.7 Marcello Fiasconaro (It) 1973

Now 1:41.11 Wilson Kipketer (Den) 1997


100yr 4:10.4 Albin Lermusiaux (Fr) 1896

50yr 3:43.0 Gunder Haegg (Swe) 1944

25yr 3:32.2 Filbert Bayi (Tan) 1974

Now 3:26.00 Hicham El Guerrouj (Mar) 1998


100yr 4:15.6 Thomas Conneff (US) 1895

50yr 4:01.4 Gunder Haegg (Swe) 1945

25yr 3:51.1 Jim Ryun (US) 1967

Now 3:43.13 Hicham El Guerrouj (Mor) 1999


100yr 16.29.2 George T-Daunis (Fr) 1899

50yr 13:58.2 Gunder Haegg (Swe) 1942

25yr 13:13.0 Emiel Puttermans (Bel) 1972

Now 12:39.36 Haile Gebrselassie (Eth) 1998


100yr 31:40.0 Walter George (GB) 1884

50yr 29:21.2 Emil Zatopek (Swit) 1949

25yr 27:30.8 David Bedford (GB) 1973

Now 26:22.75Haile Gebrselassie (Eth) 1998

100m hurdles

100yr 15.2 Alvin Kraenzlein (US) 1898

50yr 13.6 Harrison Dillard (US) 1948

25yr 13.1 Rodney Milburn (US) 1973

Now 12.91 Colin Jackson (GB) 1993

400m hurdles

100yr 56.4 Jerome Buck (US) 1896

50yr 50.6 Glenn Hardin (US) 1934

25yr 47.82 John Akii-Bua (Uga) 1972

Now 46.78 Kevin Young (US) 1992

High jump

100yr 1.97m Michael Sweeney (US) 1895

50yr 2.11m Les Steers (US) 1941

25yr 2.30m Dwight Stones (US) 1973

Now 2.45m Javier Sotomayor (Cub) 1993

Pole Vault

100yr 3.62m Raymond Clapp (US) 1898

50yr 4.77m Cornelius Warmerdam (US) 1942

25yr 5.63m Bob Seagren (US) 1972

Now 6.14m Sergei Bubka (Ukr) 1994

Long Jump

100yr 7.43m Alvin Kraenzlein (US) 1899

50yr 8.13m Jesse Owens (US) 1935

25yr 8.90m Bob Beamon (US) 1968

Now 8.95m Mike Powell (US) 1991

Triple Jump

100yr 14.94m James Connolly (US) 1896

50yr 16.00m Naoto Tajima (Japan) 1936

25yr 17.44m Viktor Saneyev (USSR) 1972

Now 18.29m Jonathan Edwards (GB) 1995


100yr 14.75m George Gray (Can) 1898

50yr 17.79m Jim Fucha (US) 1949

25yr 21.82m Al Feuerbach (US) 1973

Now 23.12m Randy Barnes (US) 1990


100yr 36.19m Charles Henneman (US) 1897

5Oyr 56.97m Fortune Gordien (US) 1949

25yr 68.40m Ricky Bruch (Swe) 1972

Now 74.08m Jurgen Schult (GDR) 1986


100yr 51.10m John Flanagan (US) 1899

50yr 59.57m Imre Nemeth (Hun) 1949

25yr 76.66m Alexei Spiridinov (USSR) 1974

Now 86.74m Yuri Sedykh (USSR) 1986


100yr 49.32m Eric Lemming (Swe) 1899

50yr 78.70m Yrjo Nikkanen (Fin) 1938

25yr 94.08m Klaus Wolfermann (W Ger) 1973

Now 98.48m Jan Zelezny (Cz Rep) 1996



75yr 12.7 Helene Schmidt (Ger) 1924

50yr 11.5 Fanny B-Koen (Neth) 1948

25yr 10.8 Renate Stecher (GDR) 1973

Now 10.49 Florence G-Joyner (US) 1988


75yr 26.2 Eileen Edwards (GB) 1924

50yr 23.6 Stanislawa Walaslewicz (Pol) 1935

25yr 22.1 Renate Stecher (W Ger) 1973

Now 21.34 Florence G-Joyner (US) 1988


75yr 60.8 Eileen Edwards (GB) 1924

50yr 56.8 Nellie Halstead (GB) 1932

25yr 49.9 Irena Szewinska (Pol) 1974

Now 47.60 Marita Koch (E Ger) 1985


75yr 2:26.6 Mary Lines (GB) 1922

50yr 2:13.8 Anna Larsson (Swe) 1945

25yr 1:57.5 Svetla Zlateva (Bul) 1973

Now 1:53.28 Jarmila Kratochvilova (Swit) 1983


50yr 4:37.8 Olga Ovsyannikova (USSR) 1946

25yr 4:01.4 Ludmila Bragina (USSR) 1972

Now 3:50.46 Qu Yunxia (China) 1993


75yr 6:13.2 Elizabeth Atkinson (GB) 1921

50yr 5:15.3 Evelyne Foster (GB) 1939

25yr 4:29.5 Paola Cacchi-Pigni (It) 1973

Now 4:12.56 Svetlana Masterkova (Rus) 1996


75yr (Records do not go back far enough)

50yr (Records do not go back far enough)

25yr 15:53.6 Paola Pigni (It) 1969

Now 14:28.09 Jiang Bo (Ch) 1997


75yr (Records do not go back far enough)

50yr (Records do not go back far enough)

25yr 34:51.0 Kathy Gibbons (US) 1971

Now 29:31.78 Wang Junxia (Ch) 1993


75yr (Records do not go back far enough)

50yr 3:40.22 Violet Percy (GB) 1926

25yr 2:43:54.5 Jacqui Hansen (US) 1974

Now 2:20:47 Tegla Loroupe (Kenya) 1998

100m hurdles

75yr (Event did not exist)

50yr (Event did not exist)

25yr 12.59 Anneliese Ehrhardt (E Ger) 1972

Now 12.21 Yordanka Donkova (Bul) 1988


75yr (Event did not exist)

50yr (Event did not exist)

25yr 56.51 Krystyna Kacperczyk (Pol) 1974

Now 52.61 Kim Batten (US) 1995


75yr 1.63m Joan Belasco (GB) 1920

50yr 1.71m Fanny B-Koen (Neth) 1943

25yr 1.95m Rosemarie Witschas (E Ger) 1974

Now 2.09m Stefka Kostadinova (Bul) 1987


75yr 5.54m Maria Kiessling (Ger) 1921

50yr 6.25m Fanny B-Koen (Neth) 1943

25yr 6.84m Heidemarie Rosendahl (W Ger) 1970

Now 7.52m Galina Chistiakova (USSR) 1988


75yr 10.15m Violette GMorris (Fr) 1924

50yr 14.86m Klavdiya Tochenova (USSR) 1949

25yr 21.57m Helena Fibingerova (Swit) 1974

Now 22.63m Natalya Lisovskaya (USSR) 1987


75yr 30.22m Lucienne Velu (Fr) 1924

50yr 53.25m Nina Dumbadze (USSR) 1948

25yr 69.90m Faina Melnik (USSR) 1974

Now 76.80m Gabriele Reinsch (E Ger) 1988


75yr 34.70m Maryha Grosse (Ger) 1923

50yr 53.41m Natalya Smirnitskaya (USSR) 1949

25yr 67.22m Ruth Fuchs (E Ger) 1974

Now 80.00m Petra Felke (E Ger) 1988

*Women's records date from the 1920s when their performances were being fully integrated into world athletics


1899-1999 (selected)



10.8 Cecil Lee (GB) 1892

10.4 Charlie Paddock (US) 1921

10.2 Jesse Owens (US) 1936

9.95 Jim Hines (US) 1968

9.86 Carl Lewis (US) 1991

9.85 Leroy Burrell (US) 1994

9.84 Donovan Bailey (Can) 1996

9.79 Maurice Greene (US) 1999


4:15.6 Thomas Conneff (US) 1895

4:10.4 Paavo Nurmi (Fin) 1923

4:07.6 Jack Lovelock (NZ) 1933

4:06.4 Sydney Wooderson (GB) 1937

4:01.4 Gunder Haegg (Swe) 1945

3:59.4 Roger Bannister (GB) 1954

3:57.2 Derek Ibbotson (GB) 1957

3:54.5 Herb Elliott (Aus) 1958

3:51.1 Jim Ryun (US) 1967

3:49.4 John Walker (NZ) 1975

3:48.40 Steve Ovett (GB) 1981

3:47.33 Sebastian Coe (GB) 1981

3:46.32 Steve Cram (GB) 1985

3:44.39 Noureddine Morceli (Alg) 1993

3:43.13 Hicham El Guerrouj (Mor) 1999


Long Jump

4.04m Rowena Reed (US) 1897

5.54m Maria Kiessling (Ger) 1921

5.98m Kinuye Hitomi (Japan) 1928

6.25m Fanny Blankers-Koen (Neth) 1943

6.35m Elzbieta Krzesinkska (Pol) 1956

6.76m Mary Rand (GB) 1964

7.07m Vilma Bardauskiene (USSR) 1978

7.20m Vali Ionescu (Rom) 1982

7.44m Heike Drechsler (E Ger) 1985

7.45m Jackie Joyner-Kersee (US) 1987

7.52m Galina Chistiakova (USSR) 1988

Compiled by Stan Greenberg