If the sprinters at the London Olympics seem to be moving faster than ever, it’s not just your imagination.
Scientists, reporting in this month's Physics World, have confirmed athletes competing in the men's 100-meter sprint have significantly increased their speed over the past 100 – and continue to do so – even as competitors in other events, such as swimming and javelin, have leveled off or decreased.
Steve Haake, director of the Centre for Sports Engineering at Sheffield Hallam University in the U.K., developed something called the "performance-improvement index," using simple physics to compare the relative improvement of top athletes in various sports over the last century.
The index shows times for the men's 100-meter sprint have improved greatly. But Haake noted it may not be due only to improved training regimens, fitness programs, dietary factors or other athletic improvements over the past century. Technological innovations – including upgrades in sports science and fully automated timing of races – are at least partly to blame.
"One way of finding out how exactly technology affects sporting performance is to examine the physics involved,” Haake said. “We can then try to quantify the effect of technology on sporting events – and find out whether it really is all about the equipment."
He noted technological interventions have changed the face of some sports. For instance:
• The performance of javelin throwers was improving drastically up until the mid-1980s, such that officials were concerned for crowd safety. As a result, the International Association of Athletics Federations changed the specifications of the javelin itself – moving its center of mass toward the tip – to reduce throwing distances by about 9 meters.
• In swimming, an unprecedented 25 world records were broken in 2008 (another 47 were logged in 2009), with tight-fitting, full-body polyurethane swimsuits seen as the main reason. The swimsuits have now been banned by swimming's ruling body.