Olympic Inflation

Olympic Inflation

Olympic Inflation

Science, technology, and life.
Aug. 13 2008 7:41 AM

Olympic Inflation

Can we please stop fussing over every new Olympic record?

A new record means that an athlete using today's equipment outperformed an athlete using yesterday's equipment. It's not a fair fight.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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In swimming alone, today's advantages include:

1. LZR Racer suit. It reduces friction (compared with skin) and is structurally designed to compress and streamline the body for maximum speed. Estimated drag reduction: 5 percent to 10 percent. Estimated average improvement in top swimmers' best times: 2 percent. Designed by NASA scientists and computers, among others. Cost: $500.

2. Pool depth. This is the deepest pool ever used in the Olympics. Depth disperses turbulence, reducing resistance.

3. Pool width and gutters. Two extra lanes at the margins disperse waves to gutters, reducing ricochet and resistance.

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4. Lane dividers. The plastic ones in Beijing deflect turbulence down instead of sideways, reducing resistance.

5. Starting blocks. Nonskid versions have replaced the old wooden ones, boosting dive propulsion.

6. Video. Recordings and analysis identify target variables such as stroke distance and turns.

7. Medical tests. Swimmers are blood-tested after each race to measure lactic-acid buildup.

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8. Sports scientists. They run the monitoring and analysis. The U.S. swim team has four.

And here's a partial list of advances in other sports:

1. Lighter shoes. The latest material is carbon nanotubes.

2. Asymmetric shoes. Stronger carbon base in the right shoe tilts you to the left to increase speed as you round the track. Left shoe is designed to stabilize you.

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3. Ice vest. It lowers your temperature before the race so you can delay overheating for better performance.

4. Hypoxic tents. Sleeping in low-oxygen chambers increases red blood-cell levels.

5. Aluminum javelins. They reduce vibration compared with the old carbon ones.

6. Bicycle wheels. Front wheels with fewer spokes (eight instead of 32) reduce weight and air resistance. So do composite one-piece rear wheels. All frames are carbon.

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Michael Phelps' coach says the LZR suit is fair. "Everybody is in the suit so it's across the board," he argues . That may be true of today's top swimmers. But it's not true of yesterday's. So comparing today's performances to the performances of 20, eight, or even four years ago which is what "new Olympic record" means is generally unfair.

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If you want to compare today's athletes to yesterday's, the ideal method would be an inflationary formula. We already calculate how much $1 in 1980 would be worth today, based on price increases. We ought to be able to devise a similar multiplier for each Olympic event, based on average year-to-year improvement among top athletes. Averaging would wash out idiosyncratic ups and downs. The effects of aging could be measured and factored out.

Olympic inflation indexing wouldn't devalue new records. It would isolate and elevate records that truly stand out. Scores of media reports have boasted that every team in this year's 4 x 100 men's swimming relay beat the time that won that event four years ago. But by inflationary standards, the British, who beat the 2004 winning time by three-tenths of a second in constant time, actually failed to keep pace with it. The Americans, who beat it by five seconds, produced a genuine achievement.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to watch the latest high-definition broadcast from Beijing on my 46-inch flat-screen TV. It beats the crap out of the 20-inch tube I was squinting at in 2004. But that doesn't make my eyesight any better.