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Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger? | David Epstein

Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger? | David Epstein


The Olympic motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius.” Faster, Higher, Stronger. And athletes have fulfilled that motto rapidly. The winner of the 2012 Olympic marathon ran two hours and eight minutes. Had he been racing against the winner of the 1904 Olympic marathon, he would have won by nearly an hour and a half. Now we all have this feeling that we’re somehow just getting better as a human race, inexorably progressing, but it’s not like we’ve evolved into a new species in a century. So what’s going on here? I want to take a look at what’s really behind this march of athletic progress. In 1936, Jesse Owens held the world record in the 100 meters. Had Jesse Owens been racing last year in the world championships of the 100 meters, when Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt finished, Owens would have still had 14 feet to go. That’s a lot in sprinter land. To give you a sense of how much it is, I want to share with you a demonstration conceived by sports scientist Ross Tucker. Now picture the stadium last year at the world championships of the 100 meters: thousands of fans waiting with baited breath to see Usain Bolt, the fastest man in history; flashbulbs popping as the
nine fastest men in the world coil themselves into their blocks. And I want you to pretend that Jesse Owens is in that race. Now close your eyes for a
second and picture the race. Bang! The gun goes off. An American sprinter jumps out to the front. Usain Bolt starts to catch him. Usain Bolt passes him, and as
the runners come to the finish, you’ll hear a beep as each man crosses the line. (Beeps) That’s the entire finish of the race. You can open your eyes now. That first beep was Usain Bolt. That last beep was Jesse Owens. Listen to it again. (Beeps) When you think of it like that, it’s not that big a difference, is it? And then consider that Usain Bolt started by propelling himself out of blocks down a specially fabricated carpet designed to allow him to travel as fast as humanly possible. Jesse Owens, on the other hand, ran on cinders, the ash from burnt wood, and that soft surface stole far more energy from his legs as he ran. Rather than blocks, Jesse
Owens had a gardening trowel that he had to use to dig holes
in the cinders to start from. Biomechanical analysis of the speed of Owens’ joints shows that had been running on the same surface as Bolt, he wouldn’t have been 14 feet behind, he would have been within one stride. Rather than the last beep, Owens would have been the second beep. Listen to it again. (Beeps) That’s the difference track
surface technology has made, and it’s done it throughout the running world. Consider a longer event. In 1954, Sir Roger Bannister became the first man to run
under four minutes in the mile. Nowadays, college kids do that every year. On rare occasions, a high school kid does it. As of the end of last year, 1,314 men had run under four minutes in the mile, but like Jesse Owens, Sir Roger Bannister ran on soft cinders that stole far more energy from his legs than the synthetic tracks of today. So I consulted biomechanics experts to find out how much slower it is to run on cinders than synthetic tracks, and their consensus that it’s
one and a half percent slower. So if you apply a one and a half
percent slowdown conversion to every man who ran his sub-four mile on a synthetic track, this is what happens. Only 530 are left. If you look at it from that perspective, fewer than ten new men per [year] have joined the sub-four mile club since Sir Roger Bannister. Now, 530 is a lot more than one, and that’s partly because
there are many more people training today and they’re training more intelligently. Even college kids are professional in their training compared to Sir Roger Bannister, who trained for 45 minutes at a time while he ditched gynecology lectures in med school. And that guy who won the 1904 Olympic marathon in three in a half hours, that guy was drinking rat poison and brandy while he ran along the course. That was his idea of a performance-enhancing drug. (Laughter) Clearly, athletes have gotten more savvy about performance-enhancing drugs as well, and that’s made a difference
in some sports at some times, but technology has made a difference in all sports, from faster skis to lighter shoes. Take a look at the record for
the 100-meter freestyle swim. The record is always trending downward, but it’s punctuated by these steep cliffs. This first cliff, in 1956, is the introduction of the flip turn. Rather than stopping and turning around, athletes could somersault under the water and get going right away in the opposite direction. This second cliff, the introduction of gutters on the side of the pool that allows water to splash off, rather than becoming turbulence that impedes the swimmers as they race. This final cliff, the introduction of full-body and low-friction swimsuits. Throughout sports, technology has
changed the face of performance. In 1972, Eddy Merckx set the record for the longest distance cycled in one hour at 30 miles, 3,774 feet. Now that record improved and improved as bicycles improved and became more aerodynamic all the way until 1996, when it was set at 35 miles, 1,531 feet, nearly five miles farther than Eddy Merckx cycled in 1972. But then in 2000, the International Cycling Union decreed that anyone who wanted to hold that record had to do so with essentially the same equipment that Eddy Merckx used in 1972. Where does the record stand today? 30 miles, 4,657 feet, a grand total of 883 feet farther than Eddy Merckx cycled more than four decades ago. Essentially the entire improvement in this record was due to technology. Still, technology isn’t the only
thing pushing athletes forward. While indeed we haven’t evolved into a new species in a century, the gene pool within competitive sports most certainly has changed. In the early half of the 20th century, physical education instructors and coaches had the idea that the average body type was the best for all athletic endeavors: medium height, medium weight, no matter the sport. And this showed in athletes’ bodies. In the 1920s, the average elite high-jumper and average elite shot-putter
were the same exact size. But as that idea started to fade away, as sports scientists and coaches realized that rather than the average body type, you want highly specialized bodies that fit into certain athletic niches, a form of artificial selection took place, a self-sorting for bodies that fit certain sports, and athletes’ bodies became
more different from one another. Today, rather than the same size
as the average elite high jumper, the average elite shot-putter is two and a half inches taller and 130 pounds heavier. And this happened throughout the sports world. In fact, if you plot on a height versus mass graph one data point for each of two dozen sports in the first half of the 20th century, it looks like this. There’s some dispersal, but it’s kind of grouped
around that average body type. Then that idea started to go away, and at the same time, digital technology — first radio, then television and the Internet — gave millions, or in some cases billions, of people a ticket to consume elite sports performance. The financial incentives and fame and glory
afforded elite athletes skyrocketed, and it tipped toward the tiny
upper echelon of performance. It accelerated the artificial
selection for specialized bodies. And if you plot a data point for these same two dozen sports today, it looks like this. The athletes’ bodies have gotten much more different from one another. And because this chart looks like the charts that show the expanding universe, with the galaxies flying away from one another, the scientists who discovered it call it “The Big Bang of Body Types.” In sports where height is prized, like basketball, the tall athletes got taller. In 1983, the National Basketball Association signed a groundbreaking agreement making players partners in the league, entitled to shares of ticket revenues and television contracts. Suddenly, anybody who could be an NBA player wanted to be, and teams started scouring the globe for the bodies that could
help them win championships. Almost overnight, the proportion of men in the NBA who are at least seven feet tall doubled to 10 percent. Today, one in 10 men in the NBA is at least seven feet tall, but a seven-foot-tall man is incredibly rare in the general population — so rare that if you know an American man between the ages of 20 and 40 who is at least seven feet tall, there’s a 17 percent chance he’s in the NBA right now. (Laughter) That is, find six honest seven footers, one is in the NBA right now. And that’s not the only way that
NBA players’ bodies are unique. This is Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man,” the ideal proportions, with arm span equal to height. My arm span is exactly equal to my height. Yours is probably very nearly so. But not the average NBA player. The average NBA player is a shade under 6’7″, with arms that are seven feet long. Not only are NBA players ridiculously tall, they are ludicrously long. Had Leonardo wanted to draw the Vitruvian NBA Player, he would have needed a rectangle and an ellipse, not a circle and a square. So in sports where large size is prized, the large athletes have gotten larger. Conversely, in sports where
diminutive stature is an advantage, the small athletes got smaller. The average elite female gymnast shrunk from 5’3″ to 4’9″ on average over the last 30 years, all the better for their power-to-weight ratio and for spinning in the air. And while the large got larger and the small got smaller, the weird got weirder. The average length of the forearm of a water polo player in relation to their total arm got longer, all the better for a forceful throwing whip. And as the large got larger, small got smaller, and the weird weirder. In swimming, the ideal body type is a long torso and short legs. It’s like the long hull of a canoe for speed over the water. And the opposite is advantageous in running. You want long legs and a short torso. And this shows in athletes’ bodies today. Here you see Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer in history, standing next to Hicham El Guerrouj, the world record holder in the mile. These men are seven inches different in height, but because of the body types advantaged in their sports, they wear the same length pants. Seven inches difference in height, these men have the same length legs. Now in some cases, the search for bodies that could push athletic performance forward ended up introducing into the competitive world populations of people that weren’t
previously competing at all, like Kenyan distance runners. We think of Kenyans as being great marathoners. Kenyans think of the Kalenjin tribe as being great marathoners. The Kalenjin make up just 12 percent of the Kenyan population but the vast majority of elite runners. And they happen, on average, to have a certain unique physiology: legs that are very long and very thin at their extremity, and this is because they have their ancestry at very low latitude in a very hot and dry climate, and an evolutionary adaptation to that is limbs that are very long and very thin at the extremity for cooling purposes. It’s the same reason that a radiator has long coils, to increase surface area compared to volume to let heat out, and because the leg is like a pendulum, the longer and thinner it is at the extremity, the more energy-efficient it is to swing. To put Kalenjin running success in perspective, consider that 17 American men in history have run faster than two hours and 10 minutes in the marathon. That’s a four-minute-and-58-second-per-mile pace. Thirty-two Kalenjin men did that last October. (Laughter) That’s from a source population the size of metropolitan Atlanta. Still, even changing technology and the changing gene pool in sports don’t account for all of the changes in performance. Athletes have a different mindset than they once did. Have you ever seen in a movie when someone gets an electrical shock and they’re thrown across a room? There’s no explosion there. What’s happening when that happens is that the electrical impulse is causing all their muscle fibers to twitch at once, and they’re throwing themselves across the room. They’re essentially jumping. That’s the power that’s contained in the human body. But normally we can’t access nearly all of it. Our brain acts as a limiter, preventing us from accessing
all of our physical resources, because we might hurt ourselves, tearing tendons or ligaments. But the more we learn about
how that limiter functions, the more we learn how we can push it back just a bit, in some cases by convincing the brain that the body won’t be in mortal danger by pushing harder. Endurance and ultra-endurance sports serve as a great example. Ultra-endurance was once thought to be harmful to human health, but now we realize that we have all these traits that are perfect for ultra-endurance: no body fur and a glut of sweat glands that keep us cool while running; narrow waists and long legs compared to our frames; large surface area of joints for shock absorption. We have an arch in our foot that acts like a spring, short toes that are better for pushing off than for grasping tree limbs, and when we run, we can turn our torso and our shoulders like this while keeping our heads straight. Our primate cousins can’t do that. They have to run like this. And we have big old butt muscles that keep us upright while running. Have you ever looked at an ape’s butt? They have no buns because they don’t run upright. And as athletes have realized that we’re perfectly suited for ultra-endurance, they’ve taken on feats that would have been unthinkable before, athletes like Spanish endurance racer Kílian Jornet. Here’s Kílian running up the Matterhorn. (Laughter) With a sweatshirt there tied around his waist. It’s so steep he can’t even run here. He’s pulling up on a rope. This is a vertical ascent of more than 8,000 feet, and Kílian went up and down in under three hours. Amazing. And talented though he is, Kílian is not a physiological freak. Now that he has done this, other athletes will follow, just as other athletes followed after Sir Roger Bannister ran under four minutes in the mile. Changing technology, changing genes, and a changing mindset. Innovation in sports, whether that’s new track surfaces or new swimming techniques, the democratization of sport, the spread to new bodies and to new populations around the world, and imagination in sport, an understanding of what the human body is truly capable of, have conspired to make athletes stronger, faster, bolder, and better than ever. Thank you very much. (Applause)

Comments (100)

  1. Are athletes becoming harder better faster stronger
    N-now th-that that don't kill me
    Can only make me stronger

    I need you to hurry up now

    'Cause I can't wait much longer

  2. I am a great athlete in the sport of cycling. I've been going strong for decades, but I could never compete with riders in the Tour de France. In my prime physical condition, the least I can weigh is about 190 lbs. These guys weigh less than 130 and it's just simple physics that it takes more energy for me to get up mountains than for them…My build is better suited for a triathlete, not the best in any one activity 🙂

  3. The speaker doesn't use the 9.58 record for Bolt btw.

  4. Given all of this – it is pretty amazing that a ground ball to short has been an out forever…

  5. So all in all athletes are not getting better by themselves as humans but improved training routines, ease of accessing scientific and competing information and rules of games is what makes them perform better as well as technology of equipment , food and medication .
    Sports peaks are now not just about all above , but specific gene pool that will serve specific purpose of the sport in which to compete.

  6. This was pretty inspiring! I like to watch these when I feel low or unmotivated, makes me see the good in the future again!

  7. Unfortunate last name

  8. No, our athletes are terrible as it comes to athletes. USA got fat so we have a belief that sports are good athletes whenever we don’t eat much protein. If you eat 1 cup of spinach and 1 cup mushrooms natural is more that 75g of protein. The people in the Middle Ages carries around 50lb swords on their shoulders all day, pouch of coin, and water. We have an idea of an athlete of today.

  9. wow. what a great presenter. very talented. i enjoyed the content as well.

  10. My personal best for the 100 metre dash is 1 hour 33

  11. whats going on?

    short answer: doping, supplements,cheating.. you know the rest

  12. Just Michael Jordan. Everyone wants to be like him so they oush themselves.

  13. I wanna take a look at what's behind this progress…
    NO need guvna! Performance enhancing drugs. And trans athletes. No need to thank me. Carry on!

  14. Did the avg blah blah blah in fact… stfu you nerd!

  15. THe 1/7 statistics for 7 footers is wrong. It only works if you in include the height of players in their shoes. If you don't include shoes there is only 1 seven footer in the NBA. THat gives you about a 2.8% chance to be in the NBA. However the sample size is small so its hard to know for sure.

  16. Completely ignores PEDs.

  17. "Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?"
    No, but their drugs sure are.
    Buh dump….. splish

  18. Well chasing your food to death would do that to a population. Lions and cheetahs don't even bother to chase as long as some humans in Africa do… When I first saw this video I was like WTF, but then I thought…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=826HMLoiE_o&t=1s

    Imagine doing that without shoes…

  19. Damn this popped up on the recommended at a bad time, his last name lmaooo

  20. So the guy in the video is claiming the billion spent on improving athletes is not required, but the people back before he is saying are the same as today where not highly paid trained athletes they where amateur, but hang on the high trained people do better than the amateurs of today so his whole argument falls apart……… So all the drug cheating which makes people win over the other professional athletes who dont, does not help either according to this guy.

    Hes claiming 7=9=10!

  21. …. Mmmm I know what you're doing YouTube… Epstein… Reallll funny muthafukas

  22. His new book “Range” was really good

  23. It took me 2 years+ but I finally clicked on the video, but now I’m just watching a 2 minute Princeton review ad

  24. 100 years ago there was a much smaller number of folks training or being found for sports. Nowadays you could find a person as tall as Usain Bolt who is even faster. This sort of thing happens.

  25. "Have you ever looked at an apes butt?"

  26. Epstein, change your last name bro…..you don’t want it

  27. This is the greatest sports ted talk, Thanks so much sir

  28. TED STUPID TALKS. Where morons feel emancipated.

  29. White man can't run but he is an expert at using

  30. The 1904 marathon isn’t a good example. They were racing on dirt roads while traffic kicked up dust. At least one racer was hospitalized from the dust ripping his lungs open. Also, they only got 3 water breaks for the whole race. The guy running the race decided he wanted to test the effects of dehydration. There were a whole host of other problems (wild dogs, for one). It’s really not a good race to compare.

  31. I read 'atheists'

  32. Bad time to have the name Epstein.

  33. You might also consider that as more black people aquire the economic means to be able to train at sport, they often outcompete the others. Watch this space for swimming and cycling.

  34. LoL… you don’t really need a Ted talk to get a clue on this…. just look at how records have been broken year after year in so many different disciplines… The big question is, what’s the peak?

  35. Uncle Jeffery is proud of his Nephew, why didn't you bring up (exogenous-steroid-free) strength training athletes, power lifters and WSM competitors? Not enough data, or not enough of the right diversity?

  36. Ummm… we ARE apes lol

    Really awesome speech though

  37. Woops. I was expecting a different Epstein…

  38. Population amount is highest on globe giving more chance to have elite athletes. They are getting smarter because of technology too.

  39. Excellent Subject. Excellent Presentation !! Very Interesting.

  40. How does he explain tyreek hill?

  41. Why is it that the biggest soy boys are always discussing athletes?

  42. "Bodily exercise profiteth little…"

    — Paul of Tarsus
    "…but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come."

  43. it would be nice if you could put the converted masses on the presentation at least if you are already talking in retarded measurements…

  44. No one is actually making a progress unless he is developing spiritually.Everything else is just bs in this 3d world.

  45. So athletes ARE getting bigger, stronger, faster with better technology and training and nutrition. Explainig the technology and methods in detail does not change that fact.

    Clickbait title.

  46. Eddie Hall tricked his fight and flight brain to lift 500 kilos in 2016.

  47. Save this convo for the PED talk 😂

  48. I wonder if he can catch a ball.

  49. Unfortunate last name atm.

  50. We need to evoled into Saiyans.
    I too am super human.

  51. We used to be stronger.. We got weaker and now we are getting stronger again.

  52. I see this explains why Saitama is so strong doctor genus you proved yourself right!

  53. Hes cherry picking his data to fit his narrative. Steroids are a huge factor in running, cycling, boxing, football and many other sports. While I understand hes focused on genetics, technique, technology and diet it’s disingenuous to avoid the steroids topic.

  54. what's the point? Was anyone arguing against this?

  55. I wonder if in the future, genetic manipulation will become a new steroid.

  56. Jan, Feb, Mar birth….is a determining factor athletic success….

  57. It's more than that. Consider David's mighty men in the Bible.

  58. I feel like this whole idea of athletes being stronger now than they used to be all kind of blew up in the basketball community mainly by fans of LeBron James in order to make it look like players from previous eras where not as naturally talented therefore the fact that they have achieved more in their careers doesn’t matter so that would mean that all it takes to be the greatest of all time at something is to be the greatest one in the modern era and that is simply not true

  59. Musicians, for example, also evolved greatly in just 200-300 years. The variety and complexity of new compositions, the battle between composers about who will write the most virtuous concerto or sonata, the increased demand for perfection placed on every new generation…Ever since Beethoven musicians had to evolve rapidly to stay in the game. I think this applies to every field. We are just discovering our potential as species, one step at a time.

  60. Brilliant lecture: I always disbelieved the professional sports because of this. In Marshal Arts you see it but the speaker really puts it into the very scientific formulas. I always thought that the selection and technology and not the training makes the modern Olympics. That is why many good training You-tube boys provide are just nothing. That is why it is so difficult to find a proper pace in a gym. It is like no woman can compete with the photoshop: the girls on the magazine cover are always more beautiful and sexy (Photoshop and selection of girls and pictures). It took me years to solve this sport problem to some extent practically. Many more steps needed to be made.

  61. Informative and entertaining, I don't even give a crap about sports and I couldn't click away.

  62. well, this pencil neck surely isn't faster, better, or stronger than most folks in the past.

  63. He missed out the advances in athlete's diets and nutrition as well.

  64. Umm take a look at boxing buddy.

  65. Alternative title
    Are athletes really getting harder, better, faster, stronger? | David Epstein

  66. Why is there maths , physics and biology included in this

  67. I see so many people below who can't accept the amazing abilities of this guy. This is one of the first videos that are worthwhile to more people than all of the talks about planets and space travel and a lot of BS and comedy that teaches us little to nothing. Thanks MR Epstein.

  68. Humans are amazing. TRY THIS for some MIND FUCKERY. Goto a mirror, look at it kinda close, and look into your own eyes, consider the fact that everything youv seen, is with thoughs eyes, your specific brain, behind them, everything it can do. The human body, not only, but every animal insect ect.. Its truly fucking amazing.

  69. And now, men claiming to identify as women are taking all their medals. Might as well just give medals to everyone, so no one has to lose…

  70. so we are not moving towards super-heroes?

  71. Is this guy related to ole' Jeff?

  72. I figured cold weather would favor a huskier slower body type, but didn't think about hot weather being good for speed. I would have guessed that predatory cats would pick off the slower guys in sub-Saharan Africa, so over time the population would increase in speed. It's like Bohr and Einstein's joke. Bohr said as they took a walk in the woods, "There's a bear, we'll never outrun him." Einstein replied, "I only have to outrun you."

  73. Still, nobody in baseball has yet blasted a ball out of a park farther than Babe Ruth, back in the days of less bouncy balls and heavier bats. Maybe all the guys as brawny as Ruth in modern times took up football. He was so burly I wouldn't have guessed that he was 6'2". Read someplace that he hit one 650 feet in 1926 in an exhibition game. The modern player who came closest to that was Sammy Sosa on steroids at 585 feet.

  74. The plateau factor come in play and records are the plateaus that are to be overcome. Once a record is set, the bar of effort is set, and once reached, the human response is to relax. The next athlete now works until they reach that bar, then they to relax. If no one ever communicated a 4 minute mile to the world, no one would have tried to break it.

  75. i don't know why he did not mention anything related to their diet but almost all major athletes are strictly following a specific diet to boost their body performance. just compare Basketball or Football players' bodies now and then, they are entirely different.

  76. And powerlifter and strongmen got fatter and fatter

  77. THIS DUDE IS PERFECT!!! WHAT A PRESENTATION! He was genuinely so funny!! Every second of this was informative! Thank you so so much!

  78. dude this guy killed himself in prison. rest in peace to this great thinker.

  79. Read the title as Athiests.. was very confused..

  80. He concludes with athletes are getting faster, better, stronger, but his whole talk was about that it's basically just because of technology, selection of athletes and new sports? So basically we aren't getting stronger, faster or better, we just use better equipment

  81. It's all "fine and dandy" as they say but unfortunately the "performance enhancing drugs" aspect has a huge role to play and it was barely mentioned and that was out of context. I don't disagree with the aspects presented here but drugs (and their improvement) are too big a factor to ignore.

  82. Everyone talking about how good a speaker he is, but I'm just amazed at that powerpoint.

  83. Harder, better, faster, stronger

  84. Wow, what an amazing video. I just think it is odd that this guy is talking in miles and feet, while TED is all about ideas worth to spread. And if you want to spread ideas with the world why wouldn't you use the metric system like the rest of the world. Or at least show both imperial and metric. Hope that in future videos TED forces their speakers to use the metric or both, but not just the imperial system.

  85. Hey I remember sonething about swimmiing suit. They introduced some new suit and had great results so they retracted those suits. Can't remember what have they done with records.

  86. someone please explain the maths at 3:44

  87. Ok, so an ape may not have a butt but how about boobs? Just asking.

  88. Oh I was scrolling and thought it said athiest not athletes

  89. could have told that story in 2 minutes…

  90. He needs to use metric measurements

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