May 24, 2010
Are the athletes of present time better than their counterparts of forty years ago, or have the new equipment, facilities and training methods accounted for a slew of new records in various sports?
In the sport of Track & Field, a quick assessment of numerous changes will help to answer this question to some degree.
- Track surface - In the sixties, the tracks were made of clay, crushed cinders or crushed brick. These surfaces absorbed the runner’s push off power.
The modern day track is a synthetic surface which gives the runner a recoil reaction.
- Hurdles - In the sixties, the hurdles were made of a heavy wooden structure. They were hard to knock over and bruised knees and ankles when hit.
The modern hurdle is made of light aluminum and plastic and is designed to easily tip over. A quality hurdler can hit several hurdles in a race and still record a fast time.
- Vaulting Poles - In the sixties a stiff Swedish pole was used and the event was a strength event as the athlete had to lift his weight over the bar. The world record was around 16’ plus.
The modern vaulting pole is made of fiberglass. The event is a gymnastic event as the pole flexes and throws the athlete up over the bar. Some athletes fly 30” off the end of the pole. The world record is over 20’.
- Javelins and discuses are all designed to be more aerodynamic and made of different materials.
- Shoes - The shoes of the sixties were made of a heavier leather sole with long spikes.
The modern spiked shoe is made of nylon and is extremely light.
- Coaches - in the sixties there were only two coaches to coach 21 events. In 2000 there are five coaches plus graduate assistants and trainers.
- A scientific approach - In the sixties there was very little scientific training applied on the track or in the weight room. In the 2000s the training knowledge is unlimited.
In May of 1954 Roger Bannister ran the mile in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds on a damp track on a cool breezy day with no competition on the last lap. A 3:59 mile is still very creditable today and would qualify for the NCAA championships. In 1958 Herb Elliott ran the mile in 3:54.5 in Dublin and then won the Olympic championship in the 1500 meters in 3:35.0 which converts to a 3:53 mile. One can only speculate how fast these marvelous performances would be if run in more modern times with all the new advantages.
The same claim can be made in other events. In 1960 Otis Daves and Carl Kaufmann ran the 400 meters in 44.9 (HT) in Rome. Roger Moens ran the 800 meters in 1:45.7 in Oslo in 1953 and Peter Snell ran 800 meters in 1:44.3 in 62 but the most impressive performances in the 800 meters might be Rudolf Harbigs 1:46.6 in 1936.
World record holders and Olympic champions Glenn Morris, 1936 and Bob Mathias, 1950-54, decathlon champions would still score very well today. Obviously, more athletes are running fast times today because more athletes are running track and field and the facilities and opportunities are greater, but which generation had the single best athlete is still cause for speculation. As a footnote, one can be assured that records set in the 50’s and 60’s were drug free.
Del G. Hessel
Hall of Fame Board Member
Former Head Coach Track & Field CSU
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