I’m sure you’ve wondered like almost everyone about world records, record holders, human capabilities and the like. I’ve engaged in discussions about who best runner, jumper, thrower for track and field is on numerous occasions. And as opposed to exploring the theoretical limits of human performance I want to focus on current best performers and performances.
It’s fun to debate and pose “what-if” situations should two athletes from different eras confront each other. Perhaps even face each other in a home-and-home competition – once in their own era and then in the opposition’s era. You know, throw today’s runners out on dirt or cinder tracks. Todays sprinters get to dig holes for their starting blocks a la 1920s. What would the effects be using shoes, clothing, and drinks of the day without the technology of today?
Perspective #1 On “Best” Athlete
My take is that the only valid comparison is an athlete against his or her peers. Only in the context of the time can a competition be “fair”. It is about everything from nutrition to training science advances to supplements to tracks and equipment technology. Even then a skeptical eye has to be used due to drug use in the various eras. Yes, drugs. There is a checkered history in sports in detecting and policing performance enhancing drug use.
Performance enhancement through chemicals of various sorts has been around for ages. The problem this poses however is twofold. One – often the substances weren’t banned until they were found to artificially enhance performances. Only then did governing agencies out law them. Two – usage precedes detection. The testing technologies lag behind new drug of choice and “clearing” agents. The drugs could be used for years before being able to detect them.
What this means to me is that certain eras will forever be tainted. That is not to say all athletes from that era used them. It is to say that it casts a haze over many performances – often record performances – of that era. Examples abound in track and field. We can look at the Eastern Block countries in the 60s-70s, USA in 80s through recent years, China in the 90s. Of course there are many more and of course we could use a sport like baseball and the 90s home run races, or historically professional cycling, etc.
Perspective #2 On “Best” Athlete
The other thought I want to share is for you to put any world record in a totally different context – the context of some athlete far better than the current world record holder may not have pursued that specific event or sport yet.
Have you ever thought that the fastest person in the world (at any event) may in fact never have even tried that event? It could be that the “best” runners are in the wrong events!
- What if the fastest sprinter in the world is busy hurdling?
- What if a 400 runner is really the potential world record holder in the 800?
- What if that 3:45 miler is really the potential world record holder in the marathon?
- What if that 5k runner is really the steeplechase record holder in disguise?
Those who pursue track & field are a small portion of all athletes in all sports around the world. It very well could be that the best track and field athletes aren’t in track and field! (By the way, it works this way for all sports. The best baseball player may be playing football, soccer, jai alai or cricket.)
- What if the fastest sprinter in the world is really playing soccer in Europe?
- What if the best high-jumper is playing professional basketball?
- What if the best pole vaulter is a gymnast in China?
- What if the best steeple chase runner is playing lacrosse?
So here is what I deduce.
- The best at anything is the best at any given point in time in history.
- The best at anything is only the best of those whoever pursued that sport.
- Thus, we cannot fairly compare competitive eras.
- We can state that any record holder is only the best of those who have tried that sport or event.