The results of a new study may distress athletes who spend countless hours training for their events in the hopes of smashing a standing record. According to a report published today in the journal Nature, the majority of athletic records are being broken by chance instead of by improvements in training or equipment.
Every sporting event includes the element of luck. But Daniel Gembris of the Julich Research Center in Germany and his colleagues set out to investigate exactly what role randomness plays in athletic competitions. They collected results from 22 track and field events that took place at the German championships between 1980 and 1989 and predicted future record breaking based solely on random factors affecting performance, such as wind, climate and altitude. For 18 of the events, the team found, their predictions fit with the results recorded between 1990 and 1999. The remaining four sports (the 110-meter hurdles, the 50- and 20-kilometer racewalk and the pole vault) did glean systematic improvements from better training methods and equipment or an increase in the number of competitors, they report. The researchers uncovered only slightly more systematic progress when they considered the best annual results worldwide: athletes in just seven out of 19 disciplines did better than chance alone would predict.