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  • 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.