Are athletes really getting better, faster, stronger?

by on May 5, 2014 at 1:09 am in Data Source, History, Sports | Permalink

A new TED talk by David Epstein says “not as much as you might think.”

From the transcript, here is one interesting excerpt:

…consider that Usain Bolt started by propelling himself out of blocks down a specially fabricated carpet designed to allow him to travel as fast as humanly possible. Jesse Owens, on the other hand, ran on cinders, the ash from burnt wood, and that soft surface stole far more energy from his legs as he ran. Rather than blocks, Jesse Owens had a gardening trowel that he had to use to dig holes in the cinders to start from.Biomechanical analysis of the speed of Owens’ joints shows that had been running on the same surface as Bolt, he wouldn’t have been 14 feet behind, he would have been within one stride.

This is interesting too:

In the early half of the 20th century, physical education instructors and coaches had the idea that the average body type was the best for all athletic endeavors: medium height, medium weight, no matter the sport.And this showed in athletes’ bodies. In the 1920s, the average elite high-jumper and average elite shot-putter were the same exact size. But as that idea started to fade away, as sports scientists and coaches realized that rather than the average body type, you want highly specialized bodies that fit into certain athletic niches, a form of artificial selection took place, a self-sorting for bodies that fit certain sports, and athletes’ bodies became more different from one another. Today, rather than the same size as the average elite high jumper, the average elite shot-putter is two and a half inches taller and 130 pounds heavier. And this happened throughout the sports world.

There is this contrast:

… if you know an American man between the ages of 20 and 40 who is at least seven feet tall, there’s a 17 percent chance he’s in the NBA right now…in sports where diminutive stature is an advantage, the small athletes got smaller. The average elite female gymnast shrunk from 5’3″ to 4’9″ on average over the last 30 years, all the better for their power-to-weight ratio and for spinning in the air.

I cannot say I am convinced, if only because I don’t recall too many NBA players from my boyhood looking like Charles Oakley.  You can suggest that example more than fits the author’s hypothesis, but then I wonder which view he is arguing against.  If you hold enough other things equal, of course performance has to be equal too.

For the pointer I thank Mitch Berkson.

1 Steve Sailer May 5, 2014 at 1:20 am

President Obama bought a copy of Epstein’s book during his annual Christmas trip to the book store. I’m guessing he bought it as a present for himself. Here’s my review of “The Sports Gene” from last year:

2 Axa May 5, 2014 at 6:32 am

Hi, I’m curious about the burnout of Danish athletes, specialization after 15, etc. Title? Link? I wonder if the same happens for math, chess, school.

3 Z May 5, 2014 at 8:52 am

I’m guessing he never read it. Obama has always struck me as an intellectually incurious guy. That’s a common feature amongst successful politicians. Their rare ability to focus on a narrow set of skills is what makes them successful. It is also what makes them seem very dull away from their natural milieu.

4 The Engineer May 5, 2014 at 10:48 am

“Their rare ability to focus on a narrow set of skills is what makes them successful.”

Not unlike elite athletes.

5 Z May 5, 2014 at 11:05 am

I’ve met far more intellectually curious athletes than politicians. Way back in the olden thymes I worked for a Congressman. When not at a public event or plotting with staffers, the guy would sit quietly along just staring into space. At first I found it to be a little unnerving. I eventually learned it was not uncommon. A lot of them were like robots that would go off-line like that.

A friend used to work with Hollywood actors and he reported something similar. It was as if all of their energy went into being “on” in front of the public or cameras. When in private they shut down. Obama is a natural political athlete, but it still must require all of his energy to be “on” every day.

6 msgkings May 6, 2014 at 11:45 am

This feels right, Obama seems to be kind of an introvert, making the work of politics pretty draining for him. As opposed to, of course, Bill Clinton, the ultimate extrovert, who seemed to actually draw strength from being around others.

7 Nancy Lebovitz May 5, 2014 at 1:40 pm

There’s at least one counter-intuitive claim in _The Sports Gene_– people can be drastically wrong about what traits contribute to excellence at a sport.

8 Doug May 5, 2014 at 1:21 am

” But as that idea started to fade away, as sports scientists and coaches realized that rather than the average body type, you want highly specialized bodies that fit into certain athletic niches”

To really appreciate this it helps to look at side-by-side pictures of modern athletes from different sports. (Link mildly NSFW, people in their underwear)

9 eddie May 5, 2014 at 10:07 am

Not really. To appreciate “you want highly specialized bodies” then we’d need to see multiple athletes for each sport, so that we can observe that they are as similar within each sport as they are different between the sports.

10 Mitch Berkson May 5, 2014 at 10:52 am

It’s striking, but it’s disappointing that some of the photos look way out of scale (e.g., Tara Lipinsky). Which is near the top of the list of things I wish they would have gotten right.

11 Steve Sailer May 5, 2014 at 1:22 am

Here are standardized photos of 2012 Olympic athletes emphasizing how radically different their body shapes are in each sport:

12 Steve Sailer May 5, 2014 at 1:25 am

Women sprinters are slower today than in 1988:

13 Doug May 5, 2014 at 1:37 am

One issue with sprinting is that it’s become a lot more heavily loaded on upper body strength. Look at Usain Bolt’s arms and shoulders compared to Jesse Owens. While women are definitely lower-body weaker than men, the gap in upper body strength between the genders is just enormous. Male sprinters have been able to make gains in the past two decades by bulking their upper body, whereas that’s largely unavailable to women.

14 Steve Sailer May 5, 2014 at 1:57 am

Some women sprinters had massive upper bodies in the 1980s. The East Germans pioneered it. But I watched the women’s 200m final at the LA Coliseum at the 1984 Olympics, and a still slender Florence-Griffith Joyner was beaten by a newly massive Valerie Brisco-Hooks, wife of an NFL receiver. Then Flo-Jo lost the 1987 world championship to a beefed-up East German woman, so she called up Ben Johnson for some off-season training advice. Flo-Jo’s 1988 records haven’t been broken yet because the Berlin Wall came down and better steroid testing was implemented after Johnson’s disgrace.

15 chuck martel May 5, 2014 at 9:11 am

The most amazing event at the LA Olympics was the closing ceremony. Lionel Ritchie singing while weird doughboys did break dances around him, a UFO arrives and a giant space alien lands in the coliseum and congratulates the earth on staging such a spectacular event. Only in California. The many millions watching all over the world must have been flabbergasted by this performance.

16 Douglas Knight May 5, 2014 at 1:28 pm

What is the causality? Why do you believe that upper body strength contributes to sprinting? Do sprinters talk about training upper body strength? Perhaps it is a side effect of drugs to strengthen the legs?

17 Doug May 5, 2014 at 2:10 pm

Sprinters use arm strength to generate vertical propulsion and stabilize against the rotary force of the leg. The latter function is also assisted by the core and back muscles. Sprinting’s not just about generating the most force with the legs, but harnessing that force in the most biomechanically efficient manner. A strong upper body is necessary to harness with the massive power generated by a sprinter’s legs.

18 Douglas Knight May 5, 2014 at 4:15 pm

What you say is plausible, though it sounds like it is more about torso muscles than about arm muscles. I don’t think your link supports your claim about arms, though maybe I don’t know enough to understand it. The only thing it says about arms is that the role of arm swings is controversial. And even if we accept that strong arm swings are important, which muscles are moving the arms, not the muscles on the arms, is it? Sprinters do build their upper body and maybe they build their arms incidentally as part of that.

19 Steve Sailer May 5, 2014 at 4:37 pm

Upper body strength also helps you get upright faster out of the blocks. Ben Johnson in 1987-88 would leave Carl Lewis behind at the starting line. Here’s what he looked like:

Of course, it wouldn’t be worth developing that kind of upper body musculature if you weren’t on steroids.

20 Douglas Knight May 5, 2014 at 5:20 pm

How can you tell what is or is not worth it? Are you assuming that they made rational investments in the past? You talk about how little time sprinters spend preparing; maybe that time would be usefully spent on upper body strength.

There are a number of examples of sports where weight lifting and steroids showed up at the same time, such as the 1963 Chargers or the 1980s baseball. Maybe clean lifting isn’t worth it. Or maybe people who lift weight quickly learn about steroids. But the example of Babe Ruth suggests that clean lifting is worth it.

21 Steve Sailer May 5, 2014 at 7:36 pm

Right, Honus Wagner was lifting dumbbells back in 1908. Babe Ruth hired a personal trainer after his disastrous 1925 season. Lifting without PEDs makes you better at most sports than not lifting.

22 Finch May 5, 2014 at 2:13 pm

Sprinters seem to have really well developed upper bodies, in contrast to distance runners who generally look like they don’t even exercise, but also in contrast to speed skaters who have massively developed lower bodies without much on top. So I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a causal connection in sprinting, since it seems like you can make choices about this.

Also, anyone who exercises knows there’s some sympathetic development, but not much. If you are completely sedentary and start riding a bicycle, your bench press will go up for a little while. But that tops out quickly, and well before the level of development you see in high-level sprinters, or more generally than the development you see in someone who trains with specificity.

But I don’t know what the connection is either, and I’d be interested to find out.

23 Douglas Knight May 5, 2014 at 2:45 pm

I don’t think long distance running is a good comparison. In particular they are on very different drugs. But speed skating is a good example because it is an extremely similar sport.

24 Finch May 5, 2014 at 6:15 pm

> In particular [distance runners] are on very different drugs

There’s different emphasis and different dosing, but I would be astounded if the vast majority of recent Olympic marathon medalists were not on both some sort of testosterone derivative and some sort of growth hormone derivative, even though both are “strength” drugs, because of the recovery and metabolism effects. Sure, they’re on EPO and probably all sorts of exotic blood doping, too, but they’re on plain-old steroids if they want to compete. They’re tiny people because of energy balance and genetics, not because they aren’t taking steroids.

25 Michael May 5, 2014 at 2:59 pm

It’s the steroids. Generally speaking, the upper body has a lot more androgen receptors than the lower body. So when someone starts riding the bike, their upper body will tend to rapidly grow. This is why even the most muscular men in the world from the pre-steroid era didn’t have massive arms/chests/backs. It’s not so much that getting stronger in the upper body helps your running, it’s just a tell-tale sign (usually) that somebody’s juicing.

26 Steve Sailer May 5, 2014 at 1:35 am

Having grown up in Southern California, it only recently occurred to me that one of the reasons for the spectacular performances of SoCal athletes during the 1960s and 1970s was that California was one of the places where steroids use took off first (e.g., Muscle Beach in Venice). For example, what are the odds that when he starred at USC in 1967-68 that The Juice, O.J. Simpson, was on the juice?

27 Steve Sailer May 5, 2014 at 1:38 am

Or, say, Wilt Chamberlain added huge amounts of muscle in his thirties after he got traded to the Lakers and started hanging out at Muscle Beach.

Wilt, Arnold, and Andre the Giant:

28 andrew' May 5, 2014 at 4:37 am

So that’s where he got fit and trim!

29 So Much for Subtlety May 5, 2014 at 6:30 am

He doesn’t seem to have huge amounts of muscle to me in that photo.

Although it may explain his unusual interest in women.

30 ed May 5, 2014 at 1:57 am

“In the 1920s, the average elite high-jumper and average elite shot-putter were the same exact size”

How could this be? Even if coaches were clueless, wouldn’t the competitions themselves sort people by natural ability to some extent?

31 Steve Sailer May 5, 2014 at 2:10 am

Right, that sounds kind of TED-Talkish.

Looking at pictures of Ray Ewry, who won 8 or 10 Olympic gold medals around the beginning of the 20th Century, he’s quite lean and long as was appropriate for his standing jump events. Sources suggest a height of either 6’1″ or 6’3″ and a weight of 174 pounds and that his physique was seen as a benefit way back then.

And even back then they knew that “a good big man beats a good little man.” Jim Thorpe, the decathlon gold medalist in 1912, is listed in Wikipedia at 6’1″ and 202 lbs.

32 Steve Sailer May 5, 2014 at 5:57 am

Okay, I would guess that Epstein is thinking of the 1924 Olympics when the shot-putting gold medalist was Bud Houser at 6-1 187, while Harold Osborn won both the high jump and the decathlon at 5-11 161.

But I think 1924 was kind of a fluke. If you look at the 1928 Olympics, John Kuck, the 1928 gold medalist, wasn’t particularly huge-looking, but he is listed at 6-3, 225, while Bob King, who won the high jump, was 6-3 174.

Or, the 1920 Olympics: Dick Landon won the high jump at 6-2 161, while the Finnish shotputter is said to be 6-0 and somewhere between 198 and 235 pounds.

If you look up gold medalist shot-putters from the past on Wikipedia, you see more variation in physique than today, but they still tended to be big. Ralph Rose, who won shotput gold in 1904 and 1908 is described as “A giant of a man at 6′ 5½” and 250 pounds.”

My guess is that if you go back to the early Olympics, in which the U.S. dominated the field part of track and field, you could win with either size or technique. But now there is so much competition that you have to have both size and technique.

33 Aaron Luchko May 5, 2014 at 9:52 pm

It’s probably not that they didn’t select for body type, but they didn’t do so aggressively. The distance running coach and the shot put coach would both go for the all-around athlete and try to train him for their sport, maybe they tailor a bit but they’re both looking for the average looking general athlete with a tendency to their sport.

But for a lot of events if you want elite performance you need to find the exceptional body type and then hope it has the athletic ability you need.

34 Steve Sailer May 5, 2014 at 2:56 am

True 7-footers are typically listed at 7′-2″ and remain extremely rare. Still, I think the chance that a very tall white guy of average coordination makes it in in the NBA has gotten noticeably smaller over the decades. For example, I followed the career of Paul Mokeski from Crespi high school to Kansas to the Bucks. It took him a long time at each level to adjust to the game, but he’d eventually become effective. I doubt if an awkward white guy would be given that amount of time to mature these days.

35 Adrian Ratnapala May 5, 2014 at 4:40 am

Why the spare two inches? I thought you had to be only 7′ to be a seven footer.

36 Steve Sailer May 5, 2014 at 5:21 am
37 Spencer75 May 5, 2014 at 4:43 am

The unneeded fixation on the race of these 7 footers goes unexplained.

Additionally, I don’t see any evidence that 7 footers (of any race) aren’t given every opportunity to mature.

38 Steve Sailer May 5, 2014 at 6:21 am

The NBA used to have a lot of awkward beanpole white American guys. Chuck Nevitt at 7-5, 216 was a classic:

Not so much anymore. The last time I checked, around 2007, the average height of NBA players was the same as in 1987. The demise of the unathletic white American 7-footer was part of the story behind this unexpected development.

Another thing that’s going on is that you used to be able to make a big time college just playing for your high school, but now AAU ball is almost essential, and a lot of white American parents don’t want their sons playing on a travel team in AAU basketball, which is pretty corrupt. In contrast, white parents like travel teams in other sports, like baseball or soccer. The high cost to parents’ keeps the underclass out of travel baseball and soccer, while AAU basketball travel teams are funded by shoe companies or college boosters or who knows where else.

So, tall white kids increasingly end up as pitchers or soccer goalies or whatever.

39 Z May 5, 2014 at 9:34 am

No only is AAU essential, but heading off to a prep school that specializes in basketball. New England is home to a lot of these academies. The fact that the whitest part of the country and the one most hostile to black people is a hot bed of prep basketball talent should garner more attention. The sneaker companies through street agents finance this stuff. Don King would be squeamish around these people.

40 derek May 5, 2014 at 9:43 am

I think you’re on the wrong track. Mobility and skill have become much bigger assets at the frontcourt positions than size, which has pushed awkward 7 footers out of the league in general. I would say that the largest contributor to this is the relatively recent rule changes that have made the need for defending large post players less essential:
-less contact allowed when guarding perimeter players
-the “mark jackson rule”, which requires that a player backing someone down below the foul line shoot or pass within 5 seconds. there’s not nearly as much need to check a bruiser anymore

And this of course ignores the more recent perspectives on the relative value of three pointers to two pointers and the low efficiency of post shots.

41 PK Sully May 5, 2014 at 9:50 am

I would add to Derek’s comments that teams ruthlessly run the high pick and roll against weak defenders so you can’t hide a tall slow shot blocker on a weak offensive center. You just can’t hide a weak defender as easily as you could in the past.

42 Z May 5, 2014 at 10:04 am

Mobility for sure, skill, not so much. In fact, the modern NBA is far less skilled at the basic elements of the game. The rule changes over the last couple of decades have been to favor running and jumping over passing and shooting. David Stern was convinced a league full of high flying dunkers was the key to success.

43 chuck martel May 5, 2014 at 11:03 am

The NBA is a bad joke and a bad product. The blown-out-of-proportion opinions of the owner of the LA Clippers are a marketing bonanza for a failing league that’s dominated by the clock and the officials. What could be more fun than watching literal giants shoot free throws? These least valuable thing on planet earth is a first quarter NBA score.

44 msgkings May 6, 2014 at 11:52 am

Wrong again, Z, it’s a 3-point shooting league now. Especially corner 3s.

45 msgkings May 6, 2014 at 11:53 am

chuck: failing league? By what metric?

Also, the first quarter of almost any sport is rarely the exciting part of the game. But yes, less so in the NBA.

46 Floccina May 20, 2014 at 1:32 pm

Yes I agree with Derek, PK Sully and msgkings. It is 3 point ball now. Less good ball handlers and drivers more big 3 point shooters like Irk Nowitzki, Among most of the non-America players things have turned for the worse when the attempt to put the ball on the floor but they can shoot over you from 3 point range. I hate the 3 point shot.

47 pete May 5, 2014 at 10:05 am

marginalrevolution: come for the interesting subject matter, stay for the race baiting.
Seriously, do you think that, possibly the Chuck Nevitt’s of the NBA have been replaced by more athletic players, both white and black? The NBA game, itself, has changed since the 80’s. The value of a midrange game has changed as has the role and necessity of pivot players. Can extend your argument to college ball (I doubt you can)? Also factor in that the NBA has a bigger pool of athletes to select from now. Euros and South Americans are not the rarity they once were.

But really, how many white 7 foot U.S. soccer goalies have played in the top leagues since the 80’s anyway?

48 Kevin May 5, 2014 at 4:27 am

I wonder what Steve Sailer would have to say about all this?

Really this talk is saying that even without individuals being faster, stronger, etc than those in the past, the system has adapted to better select athletes and arenas. Is this a result of markets being introduced to sport? Things have moved a long way since sport was a mostly amateur affair.

49 prior_approval May 5, 2014 at 4:31 am

Not to mention going from a relatively small pool of potential athletes (high tens to very low hundreds of millions) a century ago to a globalized pool of multiple billions today.

50 Steve Sailer May 5, 2014 at 6:48 am

But the Jamaicans always win.

51 So Much for Subtlety May 5, 2014 at 5:28 am

Biomechanical analysis of the speed of Owens’ joints shows that had been running on the same surface as Bolt, he wouldn’t have been 14 feet behind, he would have been within one stride.

Which merely proves that biomechanical analysis is a load of fetid dingo’s kidneys.

Even if we ignore the drugs that Bolt is on (and yes, of course he is on them), he has a huge number of advantages over Jessie Owen. Better diet. Better training. He can study films of his stride to make it perfect to the microsecond. Physiotherapy. Medical attention. Better trainers. More professionalization in general. As someone else said above, a larger pool of candidates.

Either Owen was a freak of nature who would leave the fastest runner well behind if he had modern facilities or their analysis is garbage.

I know which I would bet on.

52 Steve Sailer May 5, 2014 at 6:42 am

Do you think Usain Bolt spends every waking moment studying videotape to perfect his stride? Nah, he’s a goof. He is, however, 6-5 and more gifted biomechanically than anybody that tall has ever been. And he knows that the Jamaican government isn’t going to put him in prison over PEDs the way the American government put 2000 Olympic heroine Marion Jones in prison.

So, no, Jesse Owens couldn’t keep up with Bolt, who is special. But could he challenge Bolt’s teammate Yohan Blake in a drug-free race with modern shoes and a year of modern training?

The drugs are the big thing. Look at how Jamaicans have dominated sprinting since Marion Jones went to prison after the 2004 games. Why can a small island dominate the world? Because they have the ideal combination of West Africans, good drugging technology, and poor drug testing enforcement.

Similarly, look at the top women’s 100m times:

The top 9 times ever are by Flo-Jo in 1988 (who died in her sleep at age 38), Marion Jones (who went to prison over ‘roids), and Carmelita Jeter (who is, uh, “controversial”). In 10th place is Shelley Ann Fraser-Pryce who isn’t as absurd-looking as Jeter, but she’s Jamaican, so of course she’s on something.

53 Keith May 5, 2014 at 10:09 am

It makes you wonder how successful West Africa could be if they could just get their hands on some steroids.

54 Steve Sailer May 5, 2014 at 4:46 pm

The West Africans are very very good at 100m, it’s just that the West African diaspora is even better. Off hand I can only think of 3 non-West Africans to run 9.99 or faster in the 100m: that white French guy has done it several times in recent years, a half Irish-half Aboriginal Australian did it once, and a black guy from Zimbabwe is very fast. Maybe a couple of dozen guys from Nigeria or other West African countries (if you include Namibia in West Africa for Frankie Fredericks) have broken 10 seconds.

But top level sprinting is a complex biochemical endeavour to take the right drugs that boost performance but not get caught. State of the art expertise tends to be localized at any point in time. The East Germans were way out ahead of the rest of the world in the late 1970s, but by 1988, Los Angeles had caught up.

55 Aaron Luchko May 5, 2014 at 10:00 pm

I do think Bolt might be clean since he is a bit of a genetic freak who has been doing it since junior.

I suspect Jamaica and Kenya both have higher doping incidence than we realize, but I don’t think they have large scale systemic abuse.

56 (Not That) Bill O'Reilly May 5, 2014 at 11:00 am

The biomechanical analysis must be bunk, in part because Usain Bolt has access to film study, i.e. biomechanical analysis, that allows him to develop superior technique?

57 Axa May 5, 2014 at 6:29 am

I wonder if “motivation to endure hard training” has also genetic roots. I like to run and I get a happy, hungry and a little high (endorphins) every time I run. I wonder if the people winning marathons get higher/more joy for an equivalent training.

It’s the very same for my research job, I get pleasure from reading a lot, data retrieval and analysis. I’m conscious enough to see I enjoy the job more than others and at the same time there is people than enjoy more abstract thinking than me. Can we call this thing just “motivation”?

58 Finch May 5, 2014 at 11:01 am

Epstein writes about this extensively in his book.

It’s not a perfect book, but it’s worth reading. It’s a good antidote to Malcolm Gladwell -type thinking.

59 Z May 5, 2014 at 9:04 am

Since accurate measuring of human speed and strength is relatively new, we are at best experiencing a plateau, but are otherwise getting slower and weaker. Drugs and financial incentives slowly drive down 40 times, but the limit has been reached and that limit will slowly keep going the other direction. There’s no longer a reproductive or survival advantage to being fast or strong. Traits that are entirely useless can wash from the gene pool quickly, just as highly valued traits can sweep through human populations quickly.

60 Aaron Luchko May 5, 2014 at 10:02 pm

There’s also more opportunity for elite athletes to co-mingle, that region of the gene pool may start getting ridiculously athletic.

61 David S May 5, 2014 at 9:49 am

It’s been frequently noted that the Steroid Era of the mid 80’s through the early 90’s produced some of the most enduring records in Olympic Weightlifting and field events like shot and discus. The effect was more pronounced for women than men, particularly in the women’s discus throw. One sport that has continued to see gains is Powerlifting, where PED use is condoned in some federations. However, world records tend to be greatly influenced by the use of supportive clothing and lax judging standards. Tyler has voiced skepticism about the idea of “peak” athletic performance, but he’s the statistics indicate that we’re not going to see frequent record breaking in this century.

62 John Galt III May 5, 2014 at 9:59 am

I was in a weightlifting competition in Germany in the late 1960’s and was shocked by use of steroids by some of the competitors. I didn’t know what they were but found out fast.

63 Doug May 5, 2014 at 10:20 am

To your point, the men’s clean and jerk world record (266kg) was set in 1988 (a change in the weight class system “wiped out” records from this era, but the super heavyweight category has always been open weight, so the records are certainly comparable). Another man lifted C&J’ed 265kg in the 80s as well. The closest we’ve come to those weights lately is Rezazadeh’s 263kg C&J.

There is much talk about the rampant PED use in the ’80s, but everyone suspects the Russians and Chinese to be on PEDs today as well (a common complaint/excuse made by American lifters is that they can’t compete because they’re clean, while their competition is not). For instance, the two top Russian 105kg lifters (Klokov and Akkaev) were both breaking world records in training leading up to the 2012 Olympics, but both had to pull out at the last minute for undisclosed reasons (but everyone thinks they tested positive for PEDs).

My point: PED use is still common in weightlifting, yet many records are still longstanding.

64 Finch May 5, 2014 at 11:10 am

Olympic weightlifters have to go through some testing, and that probably limits their doses and drug choices. If the gloves were off, you would probably see modest increases in records there, too.

That’s what you see in powerlifting, although you need to differentiate between gains due to equipment and gains due to drugs. Raw records (i.e., for lifts made without supportive clothing) continue to rise very slowly.

65 Steve Sailer May 5, 2014 at 4:51 pm

I went to a weightlifting final at the 1984 Olympics. It was a fun event in a professional wrestling sort of way. The Bulgarians, who had set all the records that year, boycotted, but the Romanians came and dominated. The Romanian entrant psyched everybody else out by passing on each heavier weight until all competitors had topped out, then he entered for an all or nothing lift, gold or go home lift.

Of course, the Romanians were almost as drugged as the Bulgarians.

66 John Galt III May 5, 2014 at 9:58 am

Only athletes not improving are horses. Secretariat in 1973 set all (3) records although it took decades to add Preakness record. Same tracks and distances since 1867, 1873 and 1875.

California Chrome ran a great race on Saturday under good conditions and was 4 seconds slower than Secretariat. Slowest time in good conditions since 1974. Secretariat ran each 1/4 mile faster than the previous one. In other words it was still accelerating as it crossed the finish line.

In track and field they have cracked down on drugs and that is why some events requiring fast twitch muscles (weights and sprints) have older records. Take out drugs and records would have fallen over a longer period of tiem instead of abruptly. Long distance races have fallen more quickly as steroids don’t do you any good in a marathon.

Swimmers, both sexes, have dropped times like a rock for decades. I have no idea what this guy is talking about.

67 Z May 5, 2014 at 10:40 am

Your last sentence pretty well sums it up. You simply don’t understand the subject matter.

68 John Galt III May 5, 2014 at 6:11 pm

So, by that you mean athletes aren’t improving. You are the one who knows absolutely zero. Probably an Obama voter too which would confirm it.

69 chuck martel May 5, 2014 at 10:53 am

A horse in a race isn’t like a bullet shot out of a rifle or even a human in an hundred meter dash. And the tracks aren’t exactly the same, either. A successful two-turn horse race, especially one with 19 entrants, involves getting a good break, avoiding collisions, setting or overcoming the pace, and many other unpredictable factors. Even the great Secretariat was defeated in the Whitney by the less-than-immortal Onion.

70 John Galt III May 5, 2014 at 6:15 pm

I have known quite a few Triple Crown owners. When I ask them why they race, one reason they say is “to improve the breed”. How do you improve a breed with no new genes, only thoroughbreds can race and proof is that times aren’t getting better. In the Olympics you can use any breed you want in Dressage, Jumping and Eventing. That makes more sense. That is why times in flat racing are not getting any better.

71 chuck martel May 5, 2014 at 6:54 pm

That’s a valid point, I guess. However, most breeding is predicated on producing an animal that develops early so it can succeed racing as a two-year old and improve in its three-year old season. That’s why Kentucky Derby winners are, at least initially, hot stud prospects. Why would new genes, if such a thing even exists in the specie equus ferus caballus, be necessary to improve the breed? The reason Thoroughbred races are limited to horses registered with the Jockey Club is keep their value high, artificial insemination is forbidden for the same reason and others. In fact one of the reasons for not allowing artificial insemination is reduction of the gene pool, which has occurred in dairy cattle. It’s also a reason that studs from South Africa, Argentina and Australia are attractive to American breeders.

72 Finch May 5, 2014 at 11:13 am

Long distance sports are swimming in drugs. Steroids help, of course, but there are many other things from EPO to stimulants that are more important there than in strength sports.

73 Steve Sailer May 5, 2014 at 7:39 pm

By looking at distance running stats, you can see the year EPO arrived big time in East African running circles: 1995.

74 Mo May 5, 2014 at 1:34 pm

Swimmers also have high tech, hydrophobic suits.

75 Steve Sailer May 5, 2014 at 4:54 pm

Swimming is an evolutionarily novel thing to do, so they are still improving at techniques — e.g., the underwater dolphin kick is a radical innovation since I started watching the Olympics.

Running, however, is something we were selected for. The Japanese fanatically watch videos to perfect their stride, which is why they often make the semifinals of the Olympic men’s 100m dash. But, in the last eight Olympics, all eight finalists have been black: 64 out of 64.

76 Chad May 5, 2014 at 11:01 am

Presumably there are marginal benefits to increased nutrition research, technological improvements to exercise equipment, and, particularly in the NBA, better conditioning/training staff. Larry Bird’s back is a great example. He played during a time when the NBA didn’t have a small army of chiropractors, masseurs, and physical therapists keeping athletes in top shape and health. Heck, the average D1 team’s facilities today probably far out-pace whatever NBA players in the 80’s had to stay in shape. Go back far enough, and time spent working on the sport changes drastically. Elgin Baylor spent most of one of his seasons on duty with (I think) the National Guard. He wasn’t doing a modern NBA conditioning regimen every day.

Then, of course, we must consider the explosion of NBA talent “supply” after the Dream Team. Starting in the 90s and radically increasing today, the world knows about basketball and likes it, so NBA players are not just competing with small pockets of interest in the US, but with athletes from around the world. That means, as a team, you don’t have to settle for the out of shape guy who can shoot threes, because there are probably three *in shape* guys who can shoot threes waiting to take his place.

In short, a lot of the overall physical fitness improvements in the NBA probably comes from a combination of improved training facilities, nutrition knowledge, and talent pools (the elephant in the room here is, of course, integration of professional sports, but that largely is covered by improved talent pools).

77 Steve Sailer May 5, 2014 at 5:07 pm

The European talent pool is much larger, but the white American talent pool has shrunk considerably, as can be seen by the dearth of white American stars. Kevin Love is the new Jerry Lucas, but where are the new Jerry Wests and Bill Waltons and Larry Birds?

Whites tend to mature physically more slowly than blacks, and blacks, especially in AAU, are increasingly racially proprietary about basketball, so it’s easier and pleasanter for white basketball players to develop in Europe than in America these days. You’ll note that a fair number of white North American players in recent decades come from extremely white places in the Northwest like John Stockton and Steve Nash (Vancouver Island!)

78 mpowell May 5, 2014 at 12:18 pm

Epstein’s book is interesting, but you can oversell this kind of statement. NFL players, for example, are bigger and faster. Maybe it’s all drugs, but the legal training and diet techniques also make a difference and a lot of that stuff just wasn’t known 20 or 30 years ago much less 80. And when you’re a full time athlete that also helps.

But if you want to argue that the gene pool isn’t getting better for this sort of thing, sure that’s true. So what? I do think their analysis on Owens is interesting. But if accurate that implies that Owens was pretty remarkable because against his peers Bolt is insanely dominant. That says more about Owens than the trajectory of men’s 100M performance.

79 Dave May 5, 2014 at 12:29 pm

“if you know an American man between the ages of 20 and 40 who is at least seven feet tall, there’s a 17 percent chance he’s in the NBA right now”

That statement seems to assume that the reader/listener is equally likely to know each American man who is at least seven feet tall. But I imagine that the social networks of NBA players are different than non-NBA, so there will be observer effects that influence the probability of whether the 7 foot tall guy that you know is in the NBA.

80 Doug May 5, 2014 at 2:12 pm

I love the mental image of someone reading that comment and thinking to himself, “Hmm, Jim from across the street’s pretty tall. There’s a pretty good chance he’s in the NBA, I should ask him about that next time I see him.”

81 Steve Sailer May 5, 2014 at 5:00 pm

Here’s a Sports Illustrated article about what it’s like to be 7 feet tall — getting asked if you play basketball happens all the time.

I once found myself walking down a crowded Rush Street in Chicago behind Bill Walton (who listed himself at 6-11 because he didn’t want to seem like a freakish 7-footer, but is famously one of the few 7-footers to understate his height) and watched the reaction of yuppies to Walton. The young women, who seldom recognized him, were particularly agog.

82 mkt May 5, 2014 at 4:26 pm

When I watch the summer Olympics I’m always struck by the body shapes of the male weightlifters: short arms, short legs, and (duh) thick stocky bodies and limbs. Basketball players are probably at the opposite extreme: basketball scouts will typically report “wingspan” (a player’s arm length), not just their height and weight, because of the advantages of long arms in terms of blocking shots and getting steals.

I’ve overheard a professor who ran track talking with the college’s track coach, and they’d offhandedly mention that so-and-so looked like a 400 meter guy whereas someone else looked like an 800 meter guy — making predictions based on their body types rather than their times at a given distance. One could imagine that a guy might spend his career focusing on say the 400 meter race and doing all his training for 400s, when his body type might’ve meant that he could’ve been an even better 800 meter guy, if someone had told him to concentrate on that race instead. However I don’t know how accurate their predictions were, compared to predictions based on prior race times.

83 AlanH May 5, 2014 at 8:28 pm

It is a curious fact in Tennis that Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, and Novak Djokovic all list official heights as 6′ 1″.
The group represents peerless tennis, having to take on much taller players having a service advantage.

84 AlanH May 5, 2014 at 9:02 pm

And it turns out Don Budge was also 6’1″. So Laver is the fluke among GOAT male tennis players. Five of the six greatest are/were 6’1″.

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