Last night’s thrilling 800m men’s athletics final saw David Rudisha of Kenya win gold with a world record breaking time of 1 minute 40.91 seconds. As David rejoiced in his victory, the BBC interviewed British runner Andrew Osagie, who had come last. Andrew had run a personal best and had just taken part in a truly historic race, so he was upbeat despite coming 8th, but what emerged was a truly unlucky fact for Andrew: his finishing time would have won him gold in the last three Olympics.

So this made me wonder: are elite athletes getting so much faster every year that this trend could be seen in other events? This week’s Figure It Out therefore looks at the results of some of the most popular speed-related Olympics events over the past 40 years to see whether it’s fair to assume that elite athletes have improved steadily over time. Are they really getting faster and if so, can we then assume that previous medal winners would not win the same medals if they competed today? 

Sprint times – men’s

Let’s first have a look at the results of the men’s and women’s 100m, 200m and 400m over the past 40 years.

Starting with the men’s 100m sprint, apart from an anomaly in 1980, which one could assume is due to the US boycott of the Moscow Games that year, the trend is that yes, the world’s fastest men are generally getting faster every year, culminating in Usain Bolt’s emphatic victories in 2008 and 2012. In fact Justin Gatlin, who won bronze this week, would have won gold in any other Olympic final before 2008 with his time of 9.79 seconds.

Sprint times – women’s

If we look at the women’s 100m sprint however, we don’t see the same trend. While there has been a steady improvement since 2000 like the men, there are two anomalies in the data. In 1988, Florence Griffith-Joyner (best known as ‘Flo-Jo’) set a world record time of 10.49 seconds which remains unbeaten 24 years on. In 2000, Marion Jones originally won gold with a time of 10.75 seconds but was subsequently stripped of her medal after she admitted to using performance enhancing drugs. The slower times of her competitors could have been due to her dominance in the race and the consequent lack of competition for gold. While ‘Flo-Jo’ was never found to have taken drugs, random drugs testing was only introduced in 1989 and she died young at 38, so it could be said that the trend would mirror that of the men’s without the impact that drugs had in the women’s events during the 80s.

Like the 100m, the women’s 200m and 400m also have world records that have not been beaten since 1988 and 1985 respectively. The 200m results follow a similar trend to the 100m as can be seen below (with a slightly slower race this year); Flo-Jo’s world record causing a dip in 1998 and Marion Jones’ disqualification in 2000 showing a peak that year.

The women’s 400m trend however is quite different. Marita Koch’s world record of 47.6 seconds set in 1985 in Canberra (Marita didn’t compete in the 1984 Olympics because of the East German boycott) again remains unattainable to date, but the unusual trend seen below shows that since the 1996 Olympics, the medal winning times have actually been getting slower. This could be down to a number of factors; no breakout star pushing the top athletes to excel, unfavourable wind conditions, the speed of the track (although London’s track has been fast), but it is quite unusual to see such a trend over 16 years.

 Long distance – men’s

Turning to the longer distances, another race that isn’t improving steadily is the men’s 10,000m. The graph below shows that Mo Farah’s 2012 winning time of 27 minutes 30 seconds would not have earned him a medal of any colour in the last 4 Olympic Games (of course the winning time in longer distances reflects the pace of the race so it’s not to say that Mo couldn’t have run faster with a faster pack).


What about swimming trends? In the absence of the same level of drug controversy as athletics, the trend is smoother. Michael Phelps’ favourite race, the Men’s 200m butterfly, shows a steady downward trend, with a small spike in 1980 (possibly again due to the US boycott) and another this year in 2012 (maybe because Phelps is past his peak). Interestingly, Phelps’ silver medal winning time this year would have won him gold in any previous Olympics except 2008.

Becky Adlington’s event, the Women’s 800m freestyle, also follows the downward trend over time, with 2012’s winning time over 40 seconds faster than in the ‘70s. As with Phelps, Becky’s bronze winning time this year would have won her gold at any other Olympics before 2008.

So what does all this tell us?

–          Plotting data over time doesn’t give the analyst definitive answers, but leads them to ask questions about trends or unexpected results (such as those which point to boycotts, drugs scandals and the likes)

–          Data should be viewed through a number of different lenses before conclusions are drawn – plotting world records over time would uncover a different set of conclusions than the results of races, which are one off events, which are more sensitive to external factors

The data that’s publicly available on Olympics results is vast but it’s not unlike the quantity or quality of data that’s available in most organisations today. Data on customers, their behaviour and their preferences is collected and stored but not often analysed and leveraged to maximum effect by the organisation. Capgemini’s Business Analytics team has the tools, capability and experience to assist clients to leverage this information in this era of Big Data.

See also Capgemini’s Steve Jones’ blog on what the medals tables tell us: