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“Progress” in Sport: Are we really surpassing the supermen of the past?

By Roger Nelsen Jr.

If the past 200 years of human history have played out to an overarching theme, then that theme is undoubtedly: Progress.

Whether it be social, economic, religious, or technological, humanity as a whole has taken large, if not totally consistent, strides towards the betterment of nearly everyone in every area, and has been doing so since the industrial revolution. Naturally, the fields of athletics and, much more recently, sports science are not immune to being buoyed and carried along by the cultural wave, but this isn’t necessarily for the better.

The idea of progress presupposes the movement from less effective to more effective, inferior to superior. In some areas, the flow of progress is self-evident. Vaccines, advanced surgical techniques, artificial organs, and sci-fi-esque imaging equipment paint a clear picture for medical progress. Plant hybrids, disease resistant strains, and massive crop yields herald progress in agriculture. And the tiny, inexpensive, satellite-linked computers we all carry around in our pockets demonstrate the massive growth in communications technology that has occurred since Samuel Morse tapped out the first telegraph. Surely this same forward march exists in the realm of athletics as well?

Like the aforementioned fields, athletics has definitely seen an influx of new technologies over the past century: loadable barbells, accommodating resistance machines, iso-inertial flywheel trainers, heart rate variability monitoring systems, electromyostimulation units, and a whole host of other inventions too numerous to name. These innovations, along with the advances of the multi-billion dollar supplement industry, mean that athletes are bigger, stronger, faster and all-around better than their forebears, right? Despite the seemingly obvious answer in the affirmative, a quick look to the sportsmen of the not-so-distant past reveals some pretty serious surprises. While the ability of the average athlete has indeed risen over the past hundred years or so, there has actually been very little increase amongst the outliers, and in some cases, our modern day supermen have actually regressed.

progress in sport

Despite a lifetime of hard work, access to the best coaches and scientists in the world, vastly “superior” training technology, and nothing but the best food and supplementation, our superstar athletes are still no better than the leading men of the past. A bold statement, true, but one that data clearly supports.

In the realm of current popular sports, the longest verifiable home run in MLB history is 575 feet, belted out by a chubby, hot dog binging, whiskey swilling, cigar smoking Babe Ruth in 1921. In the last decade only one player has cracked the 500 foot barrier, a feat which Ruth managed over a dozen times in his career.

On a similar note, NFL players are put through a series of physical tests before entering the league, and the results of these tests can gain or lose players millions. The best standing broad jump yet recorded in these trials is 12’3” by Byron Jones, a prodigious leap a full 8” in front of the second best score ever, yet Englishman William Barker made a jump of 12’6” over a century beforehand.

In the sport of tennis, the fastest modern serve recorded is 163.7 MPH by Sam Groth in 2012, just a hair faster than William Tilden’s serve of 163.6 MPH in 1931, performed with a vastly inferior racket. And in track and field, “Bullet” Bob Hayes turned in a 100M relay split of 8.75 seconds in the 1964 Olympics while running on a chewed up cinder track, a mark only recently bested by former world record holder Asafa Powell when he split 8.70 seconds in 2008 on a much faster modern track. Though these are only a few examples, the pattern is repeated across sports and decades.

In the realm of feats of strength, a similar trend appears. Among modern day strong men, the heaviest weight supported on the shoulders and walked with is 1410 lbs, done in the final round of the Arnold Classic competition in 2014. While this weight is immense, Hermann Goerner carried a 1444 lb piano a distance of 52 feet in 1921 (while weighing a mere 220 lbs), and Giovanni Belzoni walked across a stage with over 1700 lbs on his shoulders in the early 1800s. In the same vein, Goerner also pulled a 727 lb single arm deadlift in 1920, and no one has come within 150 lbs since.

Regarding calisthenic strength, Gilbert Neville performed 6 one-arm chin ups while carrying an additional 56 lbs back in 1918, a feat that I’ve yet seen or heard of being even approached. Around the same time frame P.H. Paulinetti could not just hold a planche, a difficult gymnastic movement involving holding the body parallel to the ground on two locked arms, but could do so with only one arm. Regardless of how strength, speed, or power are measured, the facts are clear: despite all of the value ascribed to modern training and diet, it hasn’t lead to much, if any, increase in peak performances.

Modern sport nutrition

That been said, there are some areas in which modern athletes are superior to those of antiquity, and it would be crazy to deny the advancement of the average competitor through the ages. This however, can be largely explained away via a few factors, namely: increased participation, athlete cultivation, money, and drugs.

Starting with the first given explanation, the combination of population growth and the increase in global wealth has resulted in tremendously increased rates of sport participation around the globe. And as with any endeavor, the more people who participate, the higher the level of competition, and the more numerous the outliers.

Second, modern athletes are cultivated from a very young age, and so talent is identified and nurtured from childhood onward. Kids play sports in elementary school, middle school, high school, college, little leagues, Pop Warner, etc. and during this time their abilities are being both assessed and honed as the talented are funneled into the correct sports. A great deal of the success of the Soviet sports machine was actually due to the systematic selection of young children based upon talent identification, not on superior science or training methods. Third, the influx of money into professional sports and/or scholastic organizations has allowed for a great number of athletes to make their sport their full time job. Regardless of training methods, devoting 6-8 hours per day to one’s craft while not having to worry about income is a tremendous boon. And finally, the dirty little secret of athletics at large, is drugs. A topic so important that it requires a paragraph of its own.

Regardless of the specifics of athlete selection, training, and cultivation, at the end of the day, competitors are still human, albeit highly skilled and genetically well suited to their sport. With the synthesis of artificial testosterone prior to WWII, and the subsequent slew of more potent substances manufactured and isolated since, competitors are able to artificially alter their biology and the results are unmistakable. Though some parties claim drugs aren’t the trump card they’re usually described as, the empirical and anecdotal evidence clearly states otherwise. A great deal of modern progress can definitely be attributed to the almost ubiquitous presence of pharmaceuticals. Whether you consider this legitimate “progress” or not is beyond the scope of this conversation.

All of that having been said, the point this article is trying to make is that “newer” doesn’t necessarily mean “better”. With a minimum of equipment, scientific understanding, and organizational support, the athletes of old still managed to turn in absolutely amazing performances in every facet of physical ability. While our present technology may indeed be useful, history clearly shows that it is far from necessary. Regardless of the claims of modern researchers or product peddlers, the numbers don’t lie. All of our technological “progress” amounts to pretty much nothing when our best athletes are put up against those of antiquity, and I find that both humbling and informative.

Having done away with our misguided feelings of superiority, we’re left with what is perhaps the single most important lesson in sports training, and maybe life: Keep It Simple, Stupid. While fancy foreign programming and high tech gadgets offer promises of greatness, remember that nothing has ever proven to work better than the old school, common sense, low-tech basics of yesteryear. As far as extrapolating all that out to training advice, as noted above, just stick to the KISS principle. If you want to run faster, then run in all its permutations. Do accelerations, tow sleds, run hills, do flying sprints, run! If you want to jump higher, then jump. Jump off two feet, jump off one foot, jump from a run, bound, hurdle over things, jump! If you want to be stronger, then lift. Pick heavy things up off the ground, put heavy things overhead, carry heavy things for distance, lift! It really is that simple. Whatever it is you want to be good at, practice it frequently, at a high quality, in all its shapes and forms, and you will attain your full potential.

About Roger Nelsen Jr.

Roger Nelsen jrRoger Nelsen Jr. CSCS is the strength and conditioning coach for the 212th Rescue Squadron, a special operations unit in Anchorage, Alaska. He also currently runs Body Mechanics Personal Training with his wife, and fellow CSCS, Christal Nelsen, and loves nothing more than bringing people of all ages, backgrounds, and medical histories up to high levels of performance.

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