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

That doesn’t mean track doesn’t have its standouts. Current fastest man in the world, Usain Bolt of Jamaica, currently holds the records for men’s 100 meter, 200 meter, and 4 x 100 meter relay races. At the Beijing Olympic Summer Games in 2008, he set a world record when he ran 100 meters in 9.69 seconds. (I’m pretty sure it took me 9.69 seconds just to write that sentence.) Just one year later at the World Championships, Bolt crushed his own record with a time of 9.58 seconds. His improvement of 0.11 seconds, made after only a year’s time, is the largest margin of improvement ever recorded for the 100 meter race for as long as electronic time keeping has been used.

Bolt has been quoted as saying, “A lot of people, a lot of legends, have come before me, but this is my time.” So how does he do it? Bolt is obviously very strong, physically fit and has great technique, but competitors and coaches alike have cited his incredibly long legs and thus long stride as key factors in his success. Bolt is 6 feet 5 inches tall and his long legs, even when moving at the same speed as his competitors, provide him with an additional ~20 cm with each stride.

Conditions like weather, altitude, and wind speed also play a role in when records get set. 

Conditions like weather, altitude, and wind speed also play a role in when records get set. Many records for track and field events will cite the wind speed at the time the record was made, for comparison purposes. One study in the Canadian Journal of Physics found that tail winds up to 2 meters per second can increase a finishing time in the 200 meter sprint by 0.09 – 0.14 seconds. The same study observed that higher altitudes also assisted in lowering times, with 200 meter times falling by 0.3 seconds at altitudes over 2,000 meters.

There were, unfortunately, also large doping scandals in the 1980s that only came to light later. Suspicion still surrounds some athletes from that era and some long standing records set around that time have been called into question if subsequent efforts continue to fall far short of matching what those athletes could do.

Although gradual (and continuous) improvement in swimming records is fairly common, there are some long held records in swimming. The world record time for the women’s 800-meter freestyle race was 8:16.22, set by Janet Evans of the US in 1989 at the Pan Pacific Championships. Her record held for nearly 20 years before it was broken by Rebecca Adlington of Great Britain who shaved off ~2 seconds in the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. The record was then set by Katie Ledecky of the US in 2013 who has continued to beat her own time in each year since. She most recently set the world record in January 2016 with a time of 8:06.68 seconds.

A similar history tracks the world record for the women’s 1500-meter freestyle race. Janet Evans set a record in 1988 which endured until 2007 when it was broken by Kate Ziegler. Katie Ledecky earned the title as the record holder in 2013 at the World Championships in Barcelona and has since beat her own record four times in the three years since.

What Records Will Be Broken in the Rio 2016 Summer Games?

This year, as every Olympic Games year, there is a lot of speculation over which athletes will go home not just with medals but with claims to the world record in their sport.

Unfortunately, Kendra Harrison, the woman who broke the 100 meter hurdles record, will not complete in Rio because she did not qualify for the US Olympic Team in trials. However, check out the Teen Vogue article on 16 US women who are competing in Rio who have already set world records in their sports. The list includes Simone Biles from gymnastics, Jessica Long, Missy Franklin, Katie Ledecky from swimming, and 18 year-old high jumper Vashti Cunningham.

Also competing in Rio will be Caster Semenya of South Africa, a middle distance runner who won a silver medal in the women’s 800 meter race in the 2012 Summer Games, finishing in 1:57.23 seconds just 1 second behind the leader. In 2016, Semenya became the first person to win all three of the 400 meter, 800 meter, and 1500 meter races at the South African National Championships, events which took place within ~4 hours of one another! In the recent past, Semneya was subjected to forced gender testing when complaints about the status of her gender were raised amid the running community. Although the results were never made public, none of her medals were ever stripped from her. Many who support her fear a similar backlash should she break a world record in Rio.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Image courtesy of shutterstock


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.

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