Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Why are swimming records smashed so easily at the Olympics?

For the foreseeable future, we will likely see timings in the pool improving faster and probably more often than on the track

Confession: I’ve never thought of myself as a good swimmer. I can do my strokes steadily for several laps, and I enjoy the feeling and the exercise. But it’s slow and steady stuff, really. Gives me a chance to think and daydream.

Doing which, something came to me while I was swimming in a nearby pool this week: Why are swimming records smashed so easily at the Olympics?

Nearly every time the Games come around, we see new world records set in several events. Take the 100m men’s freestyle, for example: world records were broken at the 1956, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1976, 2000 and 2008 Games. 100m men’s butterfly? 1972, 1984, 1996. 400m women’s freestyle? 1972, 1976, 1988, 2016. 200m women’s breaststroke? 1960, 1976, 1988, 2008, 2012.

One answer to that is, of course, that the Olympics attracts the world’s best, so the competition is that much tougher, and when elite athletes push each other, it inevitably produces faster times.

So of course, it’s not just swimming: the Olympics also see world records broken in other athletic pursuits, and for the same reason. The men’s 100m track record, for example, was broken at the 1964, 1968, 1988, 1996 and 2008 Games. Women’s 100m track? 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976.

Not every Olympics Games produces records in every event, true. But given the level of competition, it is no surprise that so many records are broken in so many events during the Games.

Still, there is a general impression that more swimming records get broken than in other Olympic events. This may be because there are simply such a lot of swim events, taking in the different swim styles, the different race lengths, individual and team efforts.

It may also be because the swim events traditionally happen in the first several days of the Olympics; thus perhaps we get wowed by the swim records falling from Day 1, and get more blase about them later on in the Games.

And yet, hidden beneath this bland accounting, is what’s really surprising thing about swim timings—their progression. More correctly, the rate at which they have declined.

Consider this: In 1972, the world record in the 100m track event was 9.9 seconds, jointly owned by the Americans Ray Robinson and Eddie Hart. Over the next 40 years, various runners have chipped away at that number. The record is now Usain Bolt’s 9.58 seconds, which he posted in 2009.

That is, since 1972, the record has declined by 0.32 seconds, or just over 3.2% of the 1972 figure.

In the same period, what’s happened to the 100m freestyle world record? In 1972, the great Mark Spitz (remember him?) set it at 51.22 seconds. It now stands at 46.91 seconds, set by Brazil’s César Cielo, also in 2009.

That’s faster by 4.31 seconds, or about 8.4%. That’s over twice the percentage decline in the 100m track record.

You could do similar calculations with how other events have progressed since 1972 (a date I chose arbitrarily). Here are just a couple more.

The women’s 200m breaststroke record was 2m 38.5s then; it has sunk to 2m 19.11s now—a decline of 12.2%. The women’s 100m track record? From 22.4 to 21.34, 4.7%. Again, the swim percentage decline is over twice the track decline.

The men’s 1500m freestyle record went from 15m 52.58s to 14m 31.02, or a 8.6% drop. The men’s 1500m track record, from 3:33.1 to 3:26, 3.33%.

By now, the point must be clear. Swimming timings are getting quicker at least twice as fast as track timings are. What might explain this?

Let’s look at those numbers a little more closely though.

In general, athletes run somewhere between four and five times faster than athletes swim. That is, it takes four to five times longer to swim a given distance than to run that distance.

The slower speed of a swim, the greater time taken for the same distance, these things offer more of an opportunity to slice time off set records.

This is underlined if you look at the 20km walking race (also an Olympic event). The record there has gone from 1h 24m 50s in 1972 to 1h 16m 36s today—by 8m 14s, a 9.7% decline. Which is much more like the swim decline than you’d find with other track events.

In general, the slower the technique used to cover a given distance, the greater the room there is to cover it faster.

What this also suggests is that when we run—or at least, when athletes run—we are close to the fastest speed at which humans can propel themselves. That leaves us very little room for improvement.

He’s one speedy dude, but there really is not a lot Usain Bolt can do to run faster—no novel way to take those long steps, or pump those arms.

While swimming (and walking), on the other hand, there’s plenty of room to improve, and thus plenty of techniques to learn that can bring that improvement about.

On a train once, I had a long chat with a college swimming coach who made exactly this point. When her students practice, she said, there are always changes she can suggest to the way they move their arms, the timing of their breathing, the kicking of their legs, the way they turn at either end of the pool and more—all of which make strokes more efficient and send bodies slicing that little bit faster through the water. And at elite levels of competition, every little bit matters.

A lot of arcane analysis, no doubt, to make a simple point—for the foreseeable future, we will likely see timings in the pool improving faster and probably more often than on the track. Also, there must be some kind of limits to how fast a human can run 100m and can swim 100m. I suspect we are much closer to the running limit than we are to the swimming one.

All of which makes me wonder about something more subjective: is this why we remember the Bolts and Florence Griffith-Joyners and Carl Lewises more than we do the Mark Spitzes and Dawn Frasers and Matt Biondis?

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Jukebox Mathemagic: Always One More Dance.

His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

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