So this is quite an interesting if slightly pointless question, but nevertheless it pops up every now and again…so let’s give it a stab and see what the research says.
The 100 m has progressed from a stately 12 s in 1896 to a phenomenal 9.58 s in 2009. It is the progression of the 100 m over the last 100 plus years which have been used to predict future performance.
Researchers have added various curves to extrapolate these data points to come up with a time which will be the limit to sprinting performance. I’m not a mathmatican, therefore I’ll leave explaining the different curve fitting methods - unless any of the other team bloggers wish to comment on the most apropriate method?!
Linear extrapolation (fitting a straight line) of these trends by Tatam et al in 2004 suggested that at the 2008 Olympiad the women’s 100 m race could be won in a time of 10.57 ± 0.2 s and the men’s event in 9.73 ± 0.14 s. For male sprinters Kruper and Sterken agreed with Tatem et al and predicted that in 2008 the world record would be 9.71 s and that the ultimate limit would be 9.55 s. The predictions by Kruper and Sterken for women in 2008 were a bit wide of the mark – 10.17 s. The actual times at Beijing were 9.69 s and 10.78 s for men and women respectively. Tatam et al stated that if these trends continue, the projections would intersect at the 2156 Olympics. The time for 100 m would be 8.079 s for women and 8.098 s for men.
OK, so you’re probably way ahead of me in seeing the problem with this. You can’t fit a straight line to these data. Why? Eventually you will have a 100 m time approaching 0 s and if you continue to extrapolate further you will start to time travel with a negative time.
The other issue with comparing men to women is that the women’s world record has not been broken since Flo-Jo in 1988. Suggesting that performance has stalled/platued based on world record progression.
In 2008 Deny described Bolt’s “records as only small improvements on the existing records for the 100 m and 200 m races, 0.3% and 0.1%, respectively”. Which at the time this was indeed the case. So, based on the historical data up until that point the predicted limit for 100 m was 9.48 s (based on an average speed of 10.55 m/s).
Again, you are all probably way ahead of me here…these papers were all pre/post Beijing but more importantly all were pre-Berlin where Bolt’s improvements on the 100 and 200 m world records were no longer small but in sprinting terms – massive.
So what have we learnt from this? Predicting 100 m times from historical data are only as reliable as the day it was analysed because someone comes along and re-writes the record and rule book…and that someone was Bolt in 2009.
Next time I’ll throw in some biomechanics and explain a small aspect of how Bolt runs so fast and some mechanical limitations to speed.