Have athletes gotten faster the last 20 years? Or has equipment and technology accounted for the improvements in world record times?
A good friend recently told me that triathlon racing today is much more competitive 10-20 years ago...which he understandably justified by recommending I look at the drop in world record times. In many ways he is right- times have dropped. But when it comes to triathlon almost all the time savings have been on the swim and bike- a somewhat tech-dependent and a highly tech-dependent sport respectively. When we look at non-tech-dependent sports like running, Mark Allen's Ironman Hawaii race winning run split from 20+ years ago was over 2 minutes faster than Jan Frodeno's winning time in 2019, and faster than anyone else's time in the top 10 for that matter.
The spectacle of seeing someone go faster, further, higher, etc than ever before is undeniable, but it's important to acknowledge that we may not be witnessing a breakthrough in human performance, but a breakthrough in technology. Cycling has undoubtably benefited immensely from a shift in focus from weight savings to aerodynamic savings. Even a sport as simple and pure as swimming saw 17 world records fall in a single event- the European Short Course World Championships in 2008. All records broken that day were broken by athletes wearing the Speedo LZR swim suit (or similar suit and since banned from competition).
The marathon record was one of the last hold outs in my opinion- with the record time slowly and gradually dropping over the last 40+ years. For example, from 2001 to 2017 the women's marathon record time dropped a total of 3min. But it appears like the age of gradual run improvements is over, as Nike's VaporFly has effectively "shoe-doped" the elite running world. In one race alone (the Chicago Marathon), Brigid Kosgei took 3min off the women's record time while running in Nike's VaporFly shoes. An amazing performance no matter how you look at it, and maybe it would have been a world record performance in any shoe, but hard to justify this was solely a triumph of human performance.
Do improvements in technology and equipment take away from a world class performance? I do not think so. Today's athletes must focus on more than just their fitness if they want to compete at a world class level. To me his makes the sport more interesting, and we should embrace the benefits of technological evolution and progress. No stone can be left unturned, and in this way competition has become much more competitive in the last 20 years. The greatest must have fine attention to detail both on and off the field of play. When competing we are not only pushing our bodies to their absolute limit, but also our equipment and our understanding of it.
Though records of 20 years ago may seem almost common place today, in many ways I respect and appreciate the performances these athletes achieved even more. No doubt with today's technology and understanding of the sport, a competitive athlete from 20 to 30 years ago would be competitive today.