UPDATE 21 August 2016. The 2016 Olympic final of the 1500m mens race has just been run, and the result is a bit of a surprise compared with the trend over the past 121 years. The 2016 winning time was the slowest since the Los Angeles games in 1932! Oh well, nobody (or at least not me) has ever said that past trends are a definite prediction of what the future may hold. I have updated the table and graph below. BG
The 2016 Summer Olympic Games are only three months away so I started to think about how there always seems to be Olympic records set (and often World records too) at such events. Of course we all know that sports are much more scientifically studied and practiced now than they were 50 or more years ago so new records are to be expected, but how has the trend changed over the past century and more?
The first Olympics of the modern era were held in Athens in 1896 and since then there have been 27 Games spanning a period of 117 years (1896-2012). I have chosen my favourite event for analysis, the Mens 1500m race. [Having been raised in New Zealand my hero then was Peter Snell, the 1500m winner in 1964!]
A list of all past winners of this race, and their times, are as follows:
A plot of the winning times versus the year clearly shows the trend of decreasing winner’s times since 1896:
- Excluding the slow time in 1896, there was a regular decrease in the winning times between 1900 and 1960. Presumably this decrease reflects the greater application of sports science during this period.
- During the period 1900-1960 (inclusive) there were 13 Games and new Olympic record times were set at 11 of those Games.
- During the next 13 games between 1964 and 2012 (inclusive) all of the winning times were in a narrow range of 3:32 to 3:40. New Olympic records were set at only three of those Games.
- The participation, and success, of many African athletes since the 1960s has not resulted in dramatically faster winning times, but may reflect different race tactics that are used by runners in recent years.
- The 1500m final at Rio will take place on 20 August and it will be interesting to see if there is any change in the long-term trend. Since 1968 new Olympic records have been set every fourth Games so is this due to happen again in 2016 with a winning time of around 3:30? [ See update at top of page. ]
This article was written by Brian Gunter of Narooma, NSW. In his previous life Brian was an engineering hydrologist involved over many years in the analysis of rainfall and river flow data for the planning of water resources projects in Australia, Asia and Africa. In recent years he has been one of the Marine Rescue NSW (previously Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol) volunteer weather observers who operate the Narooma station for the Bureau of Meteorology.