Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Not as fast as we used to be

One of the beliefs we have grown up with is that sporting performance improves year by year. But it seems that things are more complicated than that.

Alan Buckingham writes on Spiked about the crisis in British long-distance running:

Despite an estimated £2.2 billion of government and lottery spending on sport each year, both at elite level and club level distance running is getting slower. In 2003 not only was the fastest British male marathon runner eight minutes slower than in 1985 - a chasm in competitive running terms - he was also slower than Paula Radcliffe.

The picture is mirrored at the club level. During the 1980s the qualifying time to obtain guaranteed entry to the London Marathon for a senior male was 2 hours 40 minutes; today it is 3 hours. Put another way, if the old qualifying time still remained, this year a mere 186 British male runners would have made the standard.

His article reminds me of a piece in the Guardian last year by Peter Radford. He showed that there is plentiful evidence that the times recorded by professional athletes in the eighteenth century were much faster than the records set by Victorian amateurs. So much so that the first four-minute mile may well have been recorded 150 years before Roger Bannister achieved his feat.

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