Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Olympics: Catching my breath

After yesterday’s long post on the East Africans, I want to catch up on a couple of things.


The home field advantage and the medal count.

I received a comment on the home field advantage and the impressive performance of U.K. athletes from Amby Burfoot of Runner’s World fame.  Amby is also interested in what the Galen Rupp silver in the 10,000m means for U.S. distance running.  Here is a link to Amby’s outstanding post on this topic.

About the home field advantage, he noted that the games are awarded years in advance and that as a result countries invest in better facilities and preparation.  Plus getting the games is a big motivator for young athletes.  Good points all.   One example is the case of Australia, a country that generally ranks highly in the per capita count.  They got a big bump in 2000 at Sydney but their commitment started decades earlier.  This link is to the history of the Australian Institute of Sport which took off after a poor showing by Australia in 1976.  It describes the comprehensive strategy used “down under” to increase the medal count.  Another strategy is to focus on sports where the medal count return on investment can be high.   The U.K has done this in cycling.


Why is the long jump “getting worse”?

The Olympic record in the long jump dates to 1968 when Bob Beamon jumped 8.9m and broke the world record by 55cm (nearly 2 ft).   However, as the wikicommons graph below shows, there have been big increments in the record before followed by periods of stagnation.  Jesse Owens set a record in 1935 that lasted 25 years and Beamon’s mark stood until the early 1990s when the current record was set by Mike Powell.  The women’s mark (like a lot of women’s records) dates from the 1980s.










If graph does not appear, click here.

The last really consistent great jumper was Carl Lewis who at age 35 won his 4th gold medal in Atlanta.   There is also an urban legend about a 30 foot jump by Lewis in Indianapolis in the early 1980s, but a bad call was made and the jump ruled a foul.

I don’t have an explanation for why long jumping has stalled out, but in the case of both Owens and Lewis they were also great sprinters.  Perhaps in the era of big money track and field those with the talent to compete in the sprints stick with the sprints, thus limiting the talent pool in the less glamorous long jump.  The other obvious explanation, at least in the U.S., is that kids who can jump tend to focus on basketball.


Katie Ledecky vs. Ye Shiwen.

At least one media outlet in the U.K. questioned the big drops in time Katie Ledecky made on her way to gold in the 800m freestyle, and played the doping card.   The suspicions voiced in the U.S. swimming community about 16 year old Ye Shiwen’s world record swim in the 400m IM and also raised the issue of a double standard and even racism.   Was Ye singled out?  In both cases we should all remember that big drops are not unusual for swimmers in this age group.   The Chinese should also remember their history of organized doping in swimming and understand that it was not so much Ye Shiwen’s overall time as it was the impressive speed of her last 100m that raised eyebrows.


What I am wondering about.

Jamaica has done well in the sprints since 1948, and other Caribbean countries have also had medalists.  However, this year the Caribbean sprinters seem to be more competitive than ever and from more of the islands than ever.   In the next couple of Olympics will we see a tidal wave of islanders?  When we look back in four or eight or twelve years will we say that Bolt turned on the whole region?

3 Responses to “Olympics: Catching my breath”

  1. August 7th, 2012 at 11:08 am

    Sheila Ray says:

    Mike, I’m interested in hearing more (perhaps after the Olympics when you have time) about the physiology and kinesiology involved in running. Why are some people naturally better at it than others? Why do some people who are extremely fit struggle with running, even when they are consistent with run training? Why do some people excel at running, but not at cycling, or plyometrics, etc.? I know some of it relates to how you train and which muscle fibers your body is used to firing, but I’d love to hear more about it.


  2. August 7th, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    Michael Joyner, M.D. says:

    Thanks Sheila, after the saturation blogging on the Olympics is done the plan is to systematically tackle the issues you raise and a number of other ones like the obesity epidemic.

  3. August 9th, 2012 at 6:39 pm

    Bob Fix says:

    Mike, in your section of “Why is the long jump getting worse”, compared to endurance races in which aerobic capacity/training methods play a significant role in the performance of the athlete – your astute observeration of Lewis and Owens being great sprinters begs the question of records such as the 100m, long jump, or broader – an anaerobic effort – Are those records being limited by the bio-mechanical or physical limitations of the human body? Are we approaching the peak of what our bodies are capable of in these scenarios? During the 2008 games, much was made of Michael Phelps’s double-jointed ankles and the ability to produce a stronger kick. His long arms compared to height, long torso, and shorter legs didn’t hurt him in the pool either. Recently it was stated Usain Bolt can run the 100 meters in 40 or 41 strides compared to his shorter competitors needing 44 to complete the race. If “abnormalities” in physique is now the 1% that separates champions from the rest of the pack, are we reaching the limit if all else is equal?

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