Why Do Some Olympic Records Get Broken?

The 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio are just around the corner. How many of those medals are likely to be new Olympic or even World Records, and how many records are expected to remain untouched?

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #202

The 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio are just around the corner. The first medals will be awarded in swimming, cycling, and weight lifting events as early as Saturday. How many of those medals are likely to be new Olympic or even World Records, and how many records are expected to remain untouched?

Leading up to the Summer Games, on July 22, 2016 at the Muller Anniversary Games in London, Kendra Harrison of the US broke the world record for the 100 meter hurdles by 0.01 seconds. The previous record of 12.21 seconds, set by Yordanka Donkova of Bulgaria, endured for nearly 28 years. The record was older than the 23-year-old Harrison herself!

So why do some records stand the test of time while others get updated much more frequently? In other words, how can athletes show continuous, even if gradual, improvements in some athletic feats while showing only sporadic improvements in others?

The Longest Held Olympic Record

The longest held Olympic record belongs to long jumper Bob Beamon. In the Summer Games in 1968 in Mexico, he crushed the previous record of 8.35 meters (27 feet 4.75 inches) by jumping 8.9 meters (or 29 feet 2.5 inches). That is by far the largest increase in the record since reliable record keeping began in 1901. The second longest jump in Olympic history is more than 7 inches shorter: Carl Lewis jumped 8.72 meters at the Games in Seoul in 1988.

Beamon still holds the Olympic record for the long jump, although the World Record was taken by Mike Powell who cleared 8.95 meters at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo. Beamon’s Olympic Record for the long jump is a whopping 48 years old and even Powell’s world record is now 25 years old.

Why Do Some Olympic Records Get Broken?

During the London Summer Games in 2012, seven Olympic records and four world records were set in 47 track and field events. Similarly, in the Beijing Summer Games in 2008 only five records were set in the same number of events. However, more Olympic records (a total of 11) and more world records (8) were set in the smaller number of 34 swimming events at the London Games.

Thus, clearly the kind of sport involved in the competition affects the cadence at which records are broken. Swimmers’ times can improve steadily as technology steadily improves. They now wear sleeker, more aerodynamic swimsuits and swim in calmer pools. Alternatively, there is very little a runner can do, for example, to improve their speed via technology.

Accessibility can also have an effect. To recreate a game time environment, swimmers must have access to an Olympic pool which is not always possible for competitors from poorer countries. There are very few limitations, however, on where a competitor can train for a running event. The more accessible a sport, the harder it can be to stand out.


About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.