100m World Records
and the Secret of the 90s

During the run-up to the 100m finals in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing the media expressed doubt about the cleanness of the competition (with respect to doping, e.g. [1], [2]). This certainly wasn't helped by Bolt's seemingly effortless win which resulted in a new world record on the 100m track [3].

Then I saw a list showing the development of the world records over the 100m from 1912 to now and thought that there are suspiciously many in recent years. So I took that list and made a graph of it:

100m World Records from 1912 to 2008

Shown are the world records as a function of the year that they were first achieved. Note: World records of people who were proven to be doped at the time of the record are not shown. If you look on the development of the world records only until the 80s, it seems that it is following a principle which may be close to the one depicted as a red line. Certainly we can see that the fall of the world record times slowed down. This makes sense, if you assume that there is a natural limit of what a human body can achieve. The red line also suggests that this limit has roughly been hit at the end of the 80s.

But what happened then? In the 90s the world record began to fall further and this development has even picked up since then. Now the world record is falling as quickly as it did in the first half of the 20th century again. So how do we interpret this development? Here are some possible explanations:

I know far too little about the development of the sport to make a final judgement about what happened since the 90s. I am convinced that something happened, though, and maybe somebody out there can take it up and clarify more. I certainly believe that there is a limit to how fast a human can run. With doping you might be able to push that limit a bit further. I wonder how far you can eventually go, but I wouldn't want to test it out. Who knows what happens to your muscles when you have pushed them artificially just a little bit too far? Maybe we should ask one of the record holders in 20 years.