Michael Hutchinson makes an interesting point about world records and technology towards the end of The Hour, his wry account of his failed attempt to break the world one-hour cycling record. It’s that using technology to squeeze out fractional advantage is part of the record-breaking process. His argument has fresh relevance as French researchers suggest that athletics records, and others, will reach their limits by 2060 – and some much sooner.
The cycling one-hour record is simple enough, at least in theory: you cycle around a banked track as fast as you can for an hour. It’s been held by many of the greats: Coppi, Moser, Anquetil, Mercx, Indurain. In 1996, the British rider Chris Boardman took the record with a ride of 56.375km.
But cycling’s governing body, the UCI, then decided that technology was helping the riders too much – so they ‘froze’ Boardman’s record and introduced a ‘new’ record, the ‘athlete’s hour’, which required that the cyclist used the same technology that could have been used by Eddie Mercx when he broke the hour record in 1972. The result, so far, has been that record attempts are made only by time trial specialists such as Hutchinson and the current holder of the ‘athlete’s hour’, the Czech rider Ondrej Sosenko.
Hutchinson makes some interesting points about this. The first is that the UCI has effectively removed the glamour from the record by their insistence on ’70s technology – and the use of technology is part of that glamour. As he writes, “The hour record used to be a showcase for the most cutting edge technology. When Mercx set his record, the magazines and newspapers devoted pages to the technological marvel that he was riding … It’s as though the athletics authrities decreed that the mile record had to be set on a cinder track with leather running shoes”.
One of the issues is that a lot of money in the sport comes from equiipment sponsors – who are inevitably less interested in ‘retro’ technology. Some of the restrictions are absurd; Hutchinson ended up arguing with officials about whether Mercx could have used a digital watch – and if not whether it would have made any difference.
And even within the UCI’s constraints, technology comes into play. Sosenko, it’s said, used an unusually heavy back wheel – which on a track would have created some of the benefits of the disc wheels time-triallists use. Hutchinson suggests it’s simply not possible to take technology out of a sport that’s always used it.
The French study on performance improvement – conducted at Irmes, the national biomedical and epidemiological institute of sport, analysed more than 3,000 records going back over the the last century to the 1896 Olmpics. It concludes that performances are now so close to physiological limts that the notion of record breaking has only half a century to go. No new records, not just in athletics but in all quantifiable sports, by 2060 (a splendidly precise prediction!). The head of Irmes, Jean-Francois Toussaint, explains the research like this:
“We could see there was a common pattern for all the events we analysed and that our mathematical model is able to predict the development of world records. It is extremely accurate when correlated to world record values throughout the Olympic era… We started our study in 1896, when we estimate people were operating at 75% of their physiological capacity. We are now at 99%. When we say there will be no more world records after 2060, it should not be forgotten that in about half of the events, there will be no world records after 2027.”
The question is: do records matter? In boxing, there are no records, just competitions. The Tour de France is run over a different course every year but it is still an achievement to win. If it does, it will make the technology, whether equipment or tracks and infrastructure, more important than ever.