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World records continue to get set every year. The assumption is that people are getting faster, stronger, and healthier every year; there’s probably some truth to that. But I also think we ignore the other aspect: an increasing participation rate.

It seems unlikely that the fastest runners in Jamaica, Botswana, Algeria, or even a more developed nation like the United States could’ve participated in the 1900 Olympics.   It’s obvious that a poor black farmer in Alabama could not have participated in the 1900 Olympics both due to institutional racism and lack of resources, but even a middle class worker in Chicago would likely have been unable to compete in such an expensive endeavor at that point in history.  The reality was that in 1900, many of these sporting events were limited to the aristocracy, the wealthy, and to a limited extent, the emerging middle classes in Western Europe and North America.

One of the major reasons we continue to see more world records set then is that greater wealth and equality in the world, resulting from greater trade, and technological improvements, are creating higher participation rates in athletic events.  As an example of how limited participation rates can make world records look relatively low, let’s take a look at the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens.  In 1896, the Gold medal winning time in the 100m dash was 12.0 seconds.  While that’s reasonably fast, it’s not very impressive when you consider the fact that the (known) world record at that time was around 10.8 seconds.

That’s quite a huge gap, and remember, even that 10.8 time is only the record amongst people who would’ve been able to compete in local sporting events with proper timing equipment.  In other words, even the 10.8 time only includes a very small portion of the world, that probably only included urban areas in Western Europe and North America.

Which brings us to another point – in 1896, it was extremely expensive for an athlete to participate to compete in an event like the Olympics, and the financial rewards were minimal.  In 2012, it can still be expensive, but the financial rewards can be huge for those who perform well; take a look at Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps to understand how lucrative it can be to succeed in modern athletic events.  Moreover, even those that don’t receive lucrative endorsement deals are often able to get significant assistance in order to train and compete in the games.

So even if humans aren’t getting faster and stronger constantly, we’ll probably continue to see world records broken as participation rates increase.  And remember, there are still large chunks of the world that have so much poverty, that it’s difficult for their best athletes to compete in many events.
Of course, we might be closer to seeing the world record curve level off in some events than others.  We’re probably closer to that point in the 100m dash than we might be in, for instance, the 200m freestyle swim.  Much of the world is able to train for a running event, but the number of people with regular access to an adequate pool is still quite low, even in many developed nations.