TED Radio Hour
6:08 am
Fri July 18, 2014

Are Athletes Really Getting Faster, Better, Stronger?

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Champions.

About David Epstein's TEDTalk

Humans seem to have gotten faster, better and stronger in almost every way. Yet as sports journalist David Epstein points out, many factors are at play when we shatter athletic records.

About David Epstein

David Epstein writes about the science of sports from performance-enhancing drugs to the lucky genetics that separate the pros from the rest of us. A science writer and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated, he's helped break stories on steroids in baseball, fraudulently marketed health remedies, and big-money irregularities in "amateur" college football.

Now Epstein is an investigative reporter at ProPublica and the author of The Sports Gene, exploring the complex factors that make up a champion athlete.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. Our show today - the making of a champion.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLYMPIC MARATHON)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And he'll turn right, into the mount, and head towards gold.

RAZ: So the winner of the 2012 Olympic marathon ran it in two hours, eight minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLYMPIC MARATHON)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: This is the Olympic champion. Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda is the Olympic gold medalist. A brilliant, brilliant...

RAZ: And had Stephen Kiprotich been running in the 1904 Olympic marathon, he'd have beat the actual winner, Thomas Hicks, by an hour and a half, a story told in a book by this guy.

DAVID EPSTEIN: I'm David Epstein.

RAZ: Who is full of facts like these.

EPSTEIN: I'm author of "The Sports Gene."

RAZ: David writes about sports science and medicine.

EPSTEIN: But I'm also an investigative reporter at ProPublica.

RAZ: Which means it's basically his job to figure out how athletes do what they do. And he's particularly interested in why, over the past hundred years, they seem to have gotten so much better.

EPSTEIN: We definitely are better. Although, it sort of depends how you look at the question because in some ways, if we're talking about raw human capabilities, we might not be as much better as we like to believe that we are.

RAZ: Here's David on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

EPSTEIN: The Olympic motto is citius, altius, fortius - faster, higher, stronger. And athletes have fulfilled that motto rapidly. In 1936, Jesse Owens held the world record in the 100 meters. Had Jesse Owens been racing last year in the world championships of the 100 meters when Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt finished, Owens would have still had 14 feet to go. That's a lot in sprinter land. To give you a sense of how much it is, I want to share with you a demonstration conceived by sports scientist Ross Tucker. Now, picture the stadium at the world championships of the 100 meters.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS COMPETITION)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER 2: The Olympic, men's 100 meters finals. Thompson - Trinidad, Powell - Jamaica.

EPSTEIN: Thousands of fans waiting with bated breath to see Usain Bolt.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS COMPETITION)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER 2: Bolt - Jamaica.

EPSTEIN: The fastest man in history. Flashbulbs popping as the nine fastest men in the world coil themselves into their blocks.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS COMPETITION)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER 2: On your mark...

EPSTEIN: And I want you to pretend that Jesse Owens is in that race. Now close your eyes for a second and picture the race.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS COMPETITION)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER 2: Set.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER 3: On their way. And Gatlin got away brilliantly, and he's ahead of the field at the moment...

EPSTEIN: An American sprinter jumps out to the front.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS COMPETITION)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER 3: Bolt going very near. (Yelling) Here comes Usain Bolt.

EPSTEIN: Usain Bolt starts to catch him. Usain Bolt passes him. And as the runners come to the finish, you'll hear a beep...

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

EPSTEIN: ...As each man crosses the line.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER 3: (Yelling) Usain Bolt storming through...

(SOUNDBITE OF TWO BEEPS)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER 3: (Yelling) He takes it again. Blake gets the silver...

EPSTEIN: That first beep was Usain Bolt. That last beep was Jesse Owens. Listen to it again.

(SOUNDBITE OF TWO BEEPS)

EPSTEIN: When you think of it like that, it's not that big a difference, is it? And then consider that Usain Bolt started by propelling himself out of blocks down a specially fabricated carpet, designed to allow him to travel as fast as humanly possible. Jesse Owens, on the other hand, ran on cinders. Rather than blocks, Jesse Owens had a gardening trowel that he had used to dig holes in the cinders to start from. Biomechanical analysis of the speed of Owens' joints shows that if he'd been running on the same surface as Bolt, he wouldn't have been 14 feet behind; he would have been within one stride. Rather than the last beep, Owens would have been the second beep. Listen to it again.

(SOUNDBITE OF TWO BEEPS)

EPSTEIN: That's the difference track surface technology has made, and it's done it throughout the running world.

RAZ: I mean, this is an incredible story. I mean, this - this would suggest that runners aren't really all that much faster today.

EPSTEIN: No, that's true that the differences are certainly wildly exaggerated. I mean, granted, Jesse Owens was blowing people away in his day, but there's no question about it, and...

RAZ: Yeah, I mean, you hear those beeps, and you cannot distinguish them - barely.

EPSTEIN: Yeah, right. It just - it's like (imitating beep noise) - that's like pretty much it. That's - and the difference between those guys - so what? It's about half a percent difference or 1 percent difference between a guy who's a living legend - and I don't think anybody else could even name one of those other beeps.

RAZ: Yeah.

EPSTEIN: That's what we're talking about. You're talking about a half percent difference in performance.

RAZ: It's incredible.

EPSTEIN: And it means, like, the difference between someone being a living legend and having an off-season job.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

EPSTEIN: Still, technology isn't the only thing pushing athletes forward. While indeed we haven't evolved into a new species in a century, the gene pool within competitive sports most certainly has changed. In the early half of the 20th century, physical education instructors and coaches had the idea that the average body type was the best for all athletic endeavors - medium height, medium weight, no matter the sport. And this showed in athletes' bodies. In the 1920s, the average elite high jumper and average elite shot putter were the same exact size.

But as that idea started to fade away, as sport scientists and coaches realized that rather than the average body type, you want highly specialized bodies that fit into certain athletic niches, a form of artificial selection took place, a self-sorting for bodies that fit certain sports. And athletes' bodies became more different from one another. Today, rather than the same size as the average elite high jumper, the average elite shot putter is two and a half inches taller and 130 pounds heavier. And this happened throughout the sports world.

And at the same time, digital technology - first radio, then television and the Internet - gave millions or, in some cases, billions of people a ticket to consume elite sports performance. The financial incentives and fame and glory afforded elite athletes skyrocketed, and it tipped toward the tiny upper echelon of performance. It accelerated the artificial selection for specialized bodies.

In sports where height is prized, like basketball, the tall athletes got taller. In 1983, the National Basketball Association signed a groundbreaking agreement, making players partners in the league - entitled to shares of ticket revenues and television contracts. Suddenly, anybody who could be an NBA player wanted to be, and teams started scouring the globe for the bodies that could help them win championships. Almost overnight, the proportion of men in the NBA who were at least 7 feet tall doubled to 10 percent. Today, 1 in 10 men in the NBA are at least 7 feet tall. But a 7-foot-tall man is incredibly rare in the general population. So rare that if you know an American man between the ages of 20 and 40 who's at least 7 feet tall, there's a 17 percent chance he's in the NBA right now.

(LAUGHTER)

EPSTEIN: Still, even changing technology and the changing gene pool in sports don't account for all the changes in performance. Athletes have a different mindset than they once did.

RAZ: And one of those athletes is Pam Reed.

EPSTEIN: Who's a legendary ultra marathoner, one of the greatest female ultra endurance athletes of all time.

RAZ: And back in 2002, Pam became the first-ever female winner of the Badwater Ultramarathon, which is a 130 mile race in the middle of summer in Death Valley, which is also one of the hottest places on earth.

PAM REED: Hi there, this is Pam Reed. You know what? It is 2 o'clock here. I'm in Salt Lake City.

RAZ: Pam is 53.

REED: I'm going to go for an hour run, and it's about 100 degrees. I'm doing some heat training right now.

RAZ: And a few years ago, David tracked Pam down to find out what makes her different.

EPSTEIN: Pam has an incessant drive to be active. So this was my favorite interview because the day I interviewed her, she had just finished the national championships and Ironman Triathlon here in New York the day before.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: A 2.4 mile swim - 112 mile bike - 26.2 mile run - discover it in a test of strength, resolve, endurance.

REED: I got second. And it was a great race (laughing).

RAZ: OK, so the very next day, Pam was flying out of LaGuardia.

EPSTEIN: And her flight was delayed, and she gets so uncomfortable sitting still, that she stashed her bags in a corner and was running laps around the parking structure while I was interviewing her...

RAZ: (Laughing).

EPSTEIN: ...The day after the Ironman Triathlon national championships.

REED: You know, it's funny because I've done that in LA, New York, Chicago, Phoenix, Tucson (laughing) - you know - in the parking garages in all those airports. You know, I'll tell my husband, OK, I'll be back in an hour and a half, and I'll just go run around for an hour. I take my radio and - yeah, so it's - because it's so boring, you know, sitting there (laughing).

RAZ: Now, scientists have tried for years to figure out how people like Pam do what they do. And as David was researching all of these elite athletes like Pam, he started to notice a pattern in the way they set goals.

EPSTEIN: Where it's not like, I'm going to win, you know, the marathon at the Olympics. It's more like, today in my workout from mile three to four, I'm going to push hard - like actionable goals, where you have that Diana Nyad-sized feat off in the distance but are really good at setting these sort of more proximate goals that actually tell you what to do today.

RAZ: But there's something else that might set Pam apart. Now, normally your brain is designed to limit what you can do with your body. At a certain point, if you're pushing your body beyond its limits, your brain will just shut your body down to make sure you don't die.

EPSTEIN: I mean, like, if you land at altitude, your brain will start holding back some of your physical resources before you've even tried to do anything.

RAZ: Wow.

EPSTEIN: It will just sense, like, something's different in this atmosphere. I'm not going to let you use all of your resources. And part of pushing yourself farther is convincing your brain that, look, we're not going to die or this is - this is really important.

REED: Well, yes, yes, definitely. You have to over - you have to just tell yourself - you feel like death, you do. He's right. You feel like death. And then for some reason, you come back to life. It's really bizarre. That's happened to me so many times.

EPSTEIN: There's no question that training is - is the ultimate biological exploration of your mind...

RAZ: Yeah.

EPSTEIN: ...Beyond what any cutting-edge science can provide you at this point.

RAZ: I mean, that's how you convince your brain that you're not going to die, right?

EPSTEIN: That's right. That's - look, when you start training - and, you know, exercise physiologists know this - before your muscles get bigger or you're - you know, you produce more red blood cells, you have an integration of your central nervous system that starts making activity smoother. Like, if you've ever started to training for running, you'll notice after a couple weeks, you start to feel smoother while running before you've even gotten in shape because your brain is sort of integrating the movements and adjusting to your new reality.

RAZ: So I'm wondering, like, even in these elite athletes - right? - who are wired and built, I guess, differently in so many ways - I mean, even for them, like, how important is winning, is victory?

EPSTEIN: It depends. It really depends. I think in many ways, for many athletes, it is. I mean, when I went to, you know, places like rural Kenya to visit the tribe that produces - the Kalenjin - that produces all the great runners - like, they are running to live. Like, that's - you know - if they had an economic renaissance tomorrow, like, their running phenomenon would be done. So they will often drop out of races if they're not going to win because they're doing it purely to make a living.

And in other cases, I don't think winning is everything for an athlete, but I think they do have to feel like they're improving. I think a lot of athletes get addicted to improvement, and if they feel like they're stagnating, not sort of beating themselves, then they get pretty disappointed pretty fast. At the same time, I think there's something natural to us about physical competition. And it's such a direct and sort of pure way to measure achievement that's very difficult to come by in other ways in life. And I think that can really motivate people to kind of tweak and tweak and tweak and try to find ways to get just a little bit better.

RAZ: David Epstein, his book is called "The Sports Gene." Check out his talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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