The professor who spent three years coming to a quick conclusion
In his office at Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Sports Engineering Research, he began to wonder whether it was possible to identify why some years see a host of track and field world records, while other bring a dip in performance. The only way to test his theory, he decided, was to gather a group of PhD students and begin the arduous task of sifting through statistics from the last 100 years.
“We chose running first because we thought it would be easy,” says Prof Haake. “With other sports like the javelin or swimming, there are technological developments which can have a significant influence on performance. With something like the 100m, there’s an athlete, the finishing line and that’s about it.
“I honestly thought it would take about a month, but it ended up taking rather longer than that.”
In fact, it’s taken more than three years. However, while the analysis might have been laborious, Prof Haake believes the Sheffield team has been able to pinpoint the reasons for the various peaks and troughs.
Some will perhaps come as no surprise. In the First and Second World Wars, when the pool of athletes was severely depleted, sprinters recorded significantly slower times.
The same was true in the mid 1970s when automated sensors replaced humans at the start and finish lines and predictably in the years following the introduction of stringent anti-doping rules, record breaking sprints were thin on the ground.
However, when it came to analysing a more recent spike in personal bests, Prof Haake has concluded it must have been down to one man. It’s what he’s calling the Usain Bolt effect.
“There was a small spike in 1968 when the Olympics were held in Mexico City and the athletes benefited from the high altitude,” says Prof Haake. “However, we saw a similar spike in 2008, which couldn’t be attributed to any outside influence.”
For the Jamaican sprinter the 2008 season was pretty momentous even by his own high standards. It began with a world record of 9.72 and ended in Beijing where he smashed the Olympic record in both the 100m and 200m. When he finished by taking gold in the 4x100m relay, he became the first man since Carl Lewis to set world records in all three events at a single competition.
“Usain Bolt’s dominance has had a massive influence,” says Prof Haake. “If we look at the top 25 athletes and take him out of the equation, there is still a marked increase in performance. We are talking about an average improvement of 0.9 seconds. That might not sound like an awful lot, but in a race which is over in the blink of an eye, it’s a case of every second really does count.
“Peer competition is such that when someone as good as Bolt comes on to the starting block everyone else improves. However, the sheer scale of the impact he has had is quite extraordinary.”
According to Prof Haake, the performance of 100m sprinters has improved by 10 per cent since 1948. All of which begs the question, are we about to reach a point when athletes will have run the fastest time humanly possibly?
“The top 25 athletes currently post an average time of 9.96 seconds for the 100m and we reckon that can probably come down to an average of 9.66,” he says. “Will times have levelled off in 10 or 20 years? Probably not. Will they have levelled off in 50 years time? Well, maybe.
“The motto of the Olympic games is Faster, Higher, Stronger and it’s part of human nature to want to watch races where the competitors have a chance of breaking the world record, so when we do get to a point where no one can run any faster I suspect we will adapt the events. It may be that we award records for winning competitions for a consecutive number of years and I have no doubt that athletics will adapt.”
Prof Haake is all too aware of the effect technology can have. He, along with a group of computer experts, has designed a programme neatly entitled Open Water Warfare, which it is hoped will give British swimmers competing in the Olympic’s 10km open water race a distinct advantage over their rivals.
“The race will take place in the Serpentine, but not even British athletes are allowed to train it beforehand,” he says. “Open water can be incredibly disorientating and this game allows the athletes to learn the course so well they should know exactly the best line to swim. It just goes to show, then when it comes to sport there will always be a way to beat the opposition.”