After the Olympics: numbers to ponder | St. Louis Public Radio

After the Olympics: numbers to ponder

Aug 25, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: August 25, 2008 - Having a hard time putting the Olympics behind you? Wondering how much faster, farther and higher the world's top athletes can go?

Much has changed in the 104 years since Washington University's Francis Field hosted the Olympic track and field competition. Consider this: An American runner named Archie Hahn took gold in the 100-meter dash at the 1904 St. Louis Games. His time? 11 seconds flat. The Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt finished the race this summer in a world-record 9.69 seconds - and it's widely accepted that he held back in the last 10 meters.

The sports truisms tend to be true. Records are made to be broken. Give athletes enough chances, and they're bound to improve. Still, put 1904 and 2008 gold medal-winning times and distances side by side (as we do below), and the differences are striking.

Advancement in equipment design and training programs no doubt help today's athlete launch weight into space and pull a body through water. Males are also taller than they were at the beginning of the 20th century. The Olympian Hahn was 5'5"; Bolt is 6'5".

In another 100 years, will someone driving past China's National Stadium wonder how a man as short and slow-footed as Bolt could win the gold?

As promised, here's the comparison of the times and distances in selected men's track and field and swimming events held in St. Louis and Beijing.

Event

Winning time/distance - 1904

Winning time/distance – 2008

Improvement (%)

Track

Time

Time

100 meter dash

11.0

9.69

11.9

200 meter dash

21.6

19.3

11.1

400 meter dash

49.2

43.75

11.1

800 meter run

1:56.0

1:44.65

9.8

1500 meter run

4:05.4

3:32.94

12.9

400 meter hurdles

53.0

47.25

10.8

Marathon

3:28:53

2:06:32

38.3

Field

Distance - meters (ft)

Distance - meters (ft)

Long jump

7.34 (24’1”)

8.34 (27’4”)

13.6

High Jump

1.80 (5’11”)

2.36 (7’9”)

31.1

Pole vault

3.50 (11’5 ¾”)

5.96 (19’ 6 ⅝”)

70.0

Shot put

14.81 (48’ 7”)

21.51 (70’ 6 ⅞”)

45.2

Discus

39.28 (128’ 9”)

68.82 (225’ 9 ½”)

75.3

Hammer

51.23 (168’ 1” )

82.02 (269’ 8”)

60.1

Swimming

Time

Time

100 meter freestyle

1:02.8

47.21

24.8

400 meter freestyle

6:16.2

3:41.86

41.0

1500 meter freestyle

27:18.2

14:40.84

46.2

100 meter backstroke

1:16.8

52.54

31.6

Elia Powers is a freelance journalist.