Why the Postponed Olympics Might Not Be So Bad — If You’re a Sprinter, That Is
With the Tokyo Olympics postponed until the summer of 2021, I got to thinking of all the hopeful Olympians confined to their living rooms and what they must be up to. Maybe some of them have taken up a quarantine hobby like baking or guitar playing, something to distract from the long, twelve month extended wait for the chance to represent their countries in front of millions.
For many top-level athletes, who devote countless hours to grueling training regimens in order to prepare to compete on the world stage, such an unexpected rescheduling must feel devastating. With the margin between a gold medal and finishing off of the podium so thin, any level of variation, let alone a change so drastic, is bound to influence results. For an aging athlete, the postponement may mean another year of decline from his or her peak performance. In contrast, an extra year could be just what an up-and-comer needs to break into medal contention.
As I thought through this idea, as well as the apparent unfairness of the preeminent world athletic competition happening only once every four years (what of the athlete who is dominant for the three years between Olympics?), more questions began to float into my mind. Foremost among these: does the year-long postponement of the Olympics mean different things for different sports? I can image that in events whose athletes’ performance stays consistent over time, this change would have a limited effect. However, if competitors can only expect to stay on the top of their game for a short time, then the delay might seriously impact results.
In hopes of answering this question, I started playing around with the data. To start, the scope of all Olympic sports seemed too broad — right now there are 33 in total, with events being added and removed at every iteration of the Games. So, I decided to focus on short and mid-distance running events, which are a subset of the sport dubbed by the IOC as “Athletics,” otherwise known as track and field. I chose these events for three main reasons. One, they have been consistently held at every Olympics for the past fifty years, so the sample is large. Second, although these are all running events (I focused on the 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, and 1500m), they draw athletes of different body types and skillsets, so I expected there to be variation in whatever results I would find. Lastly, with the vacuum of live entertainment and sports over the past few months, I have gotten into the habit of watching old YouTube reruns of Olympic and world championship track races. Writing this gave me an excuse to indulge even more in this newfound hobby.
What follows is my rough statistical analysis and an attempt to draw insights from it.
My initial inclination led me to consider how well high performance at one Olympic Games functioned as an indicator of high performance at the next. To do this, I looked back at all the finalists in each event dating back to the 1972 Munich Olympics, and simply took the overall proportion of those finalists who also appeared in the finals four years later. I decided to skip the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which 66 nations including the United States boycotted.
The results do not at first glance seem to show much — other than that maintaining long-term Olympic excellence is really, really hard. Still, although the chance of making a consecutive final is clustered roughly around one fifth across all events, we can see some patterns in the data. For one, those competing in the 100 meter dash had the highest rate of repeating as finalists, in both women’s and men’s competition. Similarly, 400 meter athletes had the lowest chance of returning for another shot at a medal (who knows why?). I’ll admit that these findings were pretty surprising to me. I expected sprinting, due to the short nature of the event and several millisecond margins between top competitors, to make consistency harder to achieve. It turns out to be the exact opposite. An alternative explanation: the shortest race means the least can go wrong.
Going For Gold
Let’s look into things a bit more deeply. Since what most people really care about when it comes to the Olympics is who ends up on the podium, how can we try to understand the likelihood of a gold medal result being influenced by a year-long shift?
One way to approach this question is by looking at who might win a gold medal if the Olympics happened in any given year — in other words, both the fastest runner in the world by year and how the grip on that title fluctuates over time. To do so, I compiled the quickest times in the world in each of the fifteen years from 2005 to 2019 and tried to come up with some metrics for the consistency of individual athletes’ ability to make this claim. Of course, it may be a stretch to say that having the fastest time during a calendar year means that a runner would replicate that performance on the biggest stage, but bear with me.
Counting the unique number of athletes who could boast the world’s fastest time in a calendar year, as well as the number of times this changed hands, yielded the following:
Higher numbers in these two categories suggest a more volatile event, in which the moniker of “world’s best” always stands ready for the taking. Lower numbers, on the other hand, mean unseating the champion happens less frequently and fewer can hope to do it.
The men’s 100m jumps out as a particular example of consistent dominance by a few athletes over a sustained period of time. But that’s not all. Not only did a relatively small number of runners hold the title of world’s fastest, but also, whenever one of them did claim the top time, he tended to sustain this for several years. Looking at the past fifteen winners in chronological order illustrates this clearly.
Powell. Powell. Powell. Bolt. Bolt. Gay. Bolt. Bolt. Bolt. Gatlin. Gatlin. Gatlin. Coleman. Coleman. Coleman.
The list consists of alternating stretches of dominance by a single runner. First came the Powell Era, then the Bolt Era, then the Gatlin and Coleman Eras.
In contrast, the women’s 200m clearly seems the event with the most fluctuation. No woman over the entire period in question held the title for two consecutive years. Here, a one year postponement would have meant a different champion no matter when the Olympics were held.
The Long Run
From here, I thought it would be interesting to plot the career arcs of some of the most accomplished athletes in recent memory to see if performance progresses differently over time for those competing in different events. I started at each athlete’s debut in world competition, and continued for as long as they continued (or continue) to compete at that level. First, I did the men’s 100m sprinters.
Next, I looked at the women’s 200m participants.
And finally I turned toward the best men’s 1500m runners.
The career arcs of all three groups follow the U-shape one would expect. In fact, they don’t look too different at all. The one thing I found most impressive was how quickly men’s 100m athletes went from professional debuts to running their peak times. For these sprinters, it took around 3–5 years. Talk about early career success. For the other two groups, it seemed more like 6–8 years before runners really hit their stride. What also stood out to me was the longevity of Allyson Felix, Asafa Powell, and Justin Gatlin. To stay at a world class level for over a decade — 15+ years in Felix’s case — despite competing in such demanding events, now that commands respect. By contrast, the distance runners appeared to maintain their top form for a much shorter period.
At the end of the day, since the Olympics are just so infrequent, it is hard to reason confidently about the impact of a year-long postponement. A simple examination of the data we do have though allows for some surprising conclusions. Namely, sprinters seemingly enjoy quicker, longer, and more consistent success than their longer distance counterparts. This may potentially help insulate their performance from schedule changes. One could imagine a variety of reasons for this phenomenon — less wear and tear on the body, a decreased race strategy burden, or maybe something as simple as that we find ourselves in the middle of a golden age for short distance running. But, is it something about sprinting inherently that explains such trends? Hard to know. That said, if I am a young track athlete made to choose my event, I’m going to run the 100 meters.
Times courtesy of World Athletics.