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Predicting exceptional performance at the Olympics in Rio: science or chance?

As every four years, we are now quickly approaching to the Games of the XXXI Olympiad, which will be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 5 to 21 August 2016. The Olympics are the biggest sports event in the world, followed by the FIFA World Cup in football and the Tour de France of cycling, with as many as two billion people tuning in at some point during the event. Throughout its relatively short history, the modern Olympics have increased from a 42-event competition with fewer than 250 competitors, to an over 300-event sporting celebration with as many as 10,000 competitors from over 200 different countries. The Olympics are hence, a unique and irreplaceable opportunity to see top class athletes competing at the highest level in the most popular sporting disciplines.

The edge of sports at the forthcoming Olympics

Human athletic performance is influenced by a number of variables, which mostly include genetic predisposition, training, ergogenic (licit or not) aids, mental attitude, environmental conditions, along with a reasonable amount of the so-called “l” factor (i.e. the “luck” factor). The fortunate combination of all these elements will make it possible that a “world record” (i.e., an extreme attainment, which represents the best performance ever attested in a certain sport discipline) can be broken. This notion leads the way to some rather understandable questions engaging the mind of most spectators of the forthcoming Rio Olympics. What kind of show are we expecting to see in next month in Rio? How many amazing performances are expected to occur? Is it possible that many world records will be broken?

relay-race
Relay Race by ThomasWolter. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

A comprehensive quantitative analysis of world records reported in the database of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for measurable Olympic events was published in 2008. The progression of world records from the years 1900 to 2007 was analyzed in nine sports disciplines (100; 400; 1,500; 10,000 m; marathon; long jump; high jump; shot put; and javelin throw), and surprisingly revealed that the relative improvement of athletic performance was higher in women than in men, which had almost doubled across the different specialties. Notably, the largest improvements were seen for the javelin throw and shot put in both genders, whereas the improvement in race time was directly related to the race distance (the longer the running distance, the larger the improvement). Nevertheless, the most interesting outcome of this analysis was represented by the fact that some world records displayed a significant linear model of improvement over time, although such improvement has substantially stopped or reached a plateau in the past few years.

How many world records will be broken in Rio?

Progression of 100m world record graph
The progression of the world record in the 100m over the past 50 years. Graph created by author, Giuseppe Lippi, and used with permission.

Rather understandably, neither a crystal ball nor an oracle would make it possible to answer to this question. What has been definitively clarified now, after decades of research in physiology and sports science, is that the “genotype of the champion” only plays a part in explaining episodic athletic performance. The progression of the world record in the 100m (the most followed Olympic event) over the past 50 years, clearly attests how challenging it may be to predict the trend in Rio.

From 1964 to 2008 the progression has been almost perfectly linear (r=0.956), but in 2009 something exceptional happened. A formidable athlete, Usain Bolt, apparently subverted biology. In just two years he was capable to improve the world record by approximately 2%: an improvement of the same magnitude as recorded in the previous 20 years.

How can this be explained? As discussed, athletic performances are the product of genetic endowment, hard work, and sport science. We can hence suppose that further improvements in sport performance will be mostly due to chance that is the occurrence of ‘extreme outliers’ in the normal distribution of top-class athletes, as it is (probably) with Usain Bolt. Therefore, it can be concluded that whatever mathematical model used may be inherently unreliable for forecasting progression of world records during the Olympics in Rio. And, I would conclude, that this is the best part of the game, since the unpredictability of a sport competition is exactly the reason why it will be followed. So, enjoy the show, enjoy the Olympics!

Featured image: Rio de Janeiro by Poswiecie. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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