The normally tough-minded Nate Silver succumbs to something or other (Summer heat? Editorial heat? and delivers a puffer on Olympic records. The best bit is Silver paraphrasing Gould (I guess a Dr. Bronze was not available). The laughable bit was this:
In another prestigious event, the women’s 100-meter dash, the world record of 10.49 seconds was set in 1988, at the Olympic trials in Indianapolis, by Florence Griffith-Joyner. She also set the Olympic record, 10.54 seconds, later that year in Seoul. No other woman has come within 0.2 of a second of her Olympic mark.
Those cases are not as exceptional as you might think. Only five track and field world records were broken at the Beijing games in 2008 out of 47 events. And it was actually a relatively productive Olympics by that standard: only seven world records had been established at the prior four games combined.
By contrast, 25 world records were set in the swimming competition in Beijing — out of just 34 events. The longest-standing world record in any swimming discipline is barely more than 10 years old. It was set by Grant Hackett in the 1,500-meter freestyle at the Australian Championships in 2001.
Unfortunately, one must mention steriods as a likely explanation. Women's track and field has a number of records that still stand from the 80's (100, 200, 400, 800, 100 hurdles, 4x100 relay, 4x400 relay, high jump, long jump, shot put, discus, heptathlon) and no one is at all mystified as to what was going on. In addition, the Chinese set track records in 1993 in the 1500, 3000 and 10,000 back when their doctors nearly took over women's swimming.
Which lets us segue to a possible defense of Mr. Silver's omission of any discussion of a steroid effect - maybe the impact was offsetting since both swimming and track were tainted. Well, maybe, or maybe not. From what I have read, swimming requires a lot more technique than running (although neither is neurosurgery). Or maybe the statistical method employed by Mr. Silver (who tracked trends, not records per se) glossed over the drug use in some fashion. Maybe! A few words about why the comparison of two sets of tainted results is meaningful would have been reassuring.
Let me go for the Gould here:
Another factor: an athlete with the perfect swimmer’s build and a world-class work ethic would still stand little chance of competing in this year’s games if he happened to be born in a poor nation like Cameroon or Panama — he might never have gotten into a pool, let alone an Olympic-size one. But running, especially over short distances, can be practiced virtually anywhere and anytime.
Which leads to this: As Stephen Jay Gould noted, the more open to competition a sport is, the harder it may be to break records or to post extraordinary statistics. The .400 hitter disappeared in baseball once the color barrier was broken, and black Americans and players from Latin America were allowed to compete in the major leagues. This raised the average level of performance — but also made it harder for any one athlete to stand out quite as much relative to his peers.
In the track and field events, it is more likely that an athlete has already come close to what Gould called the “right wall” of human performance, simply because the human being who possessed the ideal build and work ethic is more likely actually to have competed in the Olympic Games.
I would add that during a period of rising popularity, access to a sport will outstrip population growth. My unresearched impression is that plenty of Olympic swimmers from other nations are training at US colleges; my guess is that this is much more common today that forty years ago. It may well be that swimming has become a better ticket out of poverty than formerly, in a way that track has not.
And speaking of track, its popularity has plunged in the US, due in part to the doping and dubious records. If US athletic talent is being hoovered up by basketball and football (If? Imagine Russell Westbrook as a sprinter or MJ as a highjumper) more than it was forty years ago, then the pool of US track athletes won't be growing as quickly as the pool of swimmers. Globally, it may be that soccer and basketbal are collecting lots of potential track stars.