Why swimming beats athletics in world records hands down

How has the 100 metres world record moved in the pool versus on the track? Men versus women? Compare this progression for 62 events in track and field and swimming using this data interactive


In the last 40 years, for every world record run by an athlete on track, swimmers turned in two in the pool, shows an analysis of 929 world records across 62 events in the two sports. Photo: AP
In the last 40 years, for every world record run by an athlete on track, swimmers turned in two in the pool, shows an analysis of 929 world records across 62 events in the two sports. Photo: AP

Six world records have tumbled so far in swimming at the Rio Olympics. When track events in athletics get off the blocks on Friday, chances are, they won’t match the world record count in the pool.

In the last 40 years, for every world record run by an athlete on track, swimmers turned in two in the pool, shows an analysis of 929 world records across 62 events in the two sports. Even in terms of time erased, the comparative figure is similar, especially among men.

The data interactive below traces the progression of the world records in each of these 62 events since 1 January 1976. All world record timings have been rebased to 100 to enable comparison within an event, as well as across events, though the latter involves many more nuances.

This 40-year span saw two periods when extraneous circumstances directed a blip in sporting performance. The first was the 1970s and 1980s, and East Germany’s systematic doping programme. It is telling that 25 years after ceasing to exist following its reunification with West Germany, East Germany still has the highest number of world records in women’s track and the second highest in women’s swimming in this 40-year period. And nearly 75% of all women’s track records of the last four decades were set in this period.

The second was the advent around the year 2000 of full-length body suits in swimming, which reduced drag and enabled swimmers to float better on water. These suits were banned in competition in 2010.

However, the imprint of both these periods is still visible in the longest-standing world records. For example, in women’s athletics, the 800 metres mark is held by Jarmila Kratochvílová of Czechoslovakia (set in 1983), the 400 metres by Marita Koch of East Germany (Set in 1985) and the 100 metres by Florence Griffith-Joyner of the US (set in 1988).

If swimming is a fount of world records, there are events in track where little has moved. Like the 400 metres, where Lee Evans set a time in 1968 in Mexico City altitude. Only twice has that been lowered since, and only 1.55% have come off it. Use the interactive below to compare by time, gender, sport and event.

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