Social Science blog

3 posts from April 2012

25 April 2012

The frontiers of speed

Usain Bolt has recently said in a BBC interview that he is hopeful of running the 100 metres at the London Olympics this summer in 9.4 seconds

Such a run would smash the current world record, and this exciting prospect set me to wondering what limits there actually are to human speed, and just how far we can push them (when I say we I mean men like Bolt, of course!).

In 1912 the American Don Lippincott established an official world record for the 100 metres of 10.6 seconds; 100 years later, Bolt has moved the record on to 9.58 (and if you look at the Youtube video of him achieving this time in Berlin, it’s pretty clear that he’s characteristically not running his absolute fastest at the end, so 9.4 certainly looks possible.

The physiology of speed is science rather than social science territory, but the whole question of what we can ultimately achieve is endlessly fascinating, mainly because there’s a tantalising element of psychology mixed up in it. In other words, what we can do is often strongly linked to our expectations, which are infinite.

In the early days of women’s running all sorts of dire predictions about endurance racing gained currency, with the result that most of the women who ran the 800 metres in 1928 collapsed at the end, overcome by their inculcated ideas about what was physically possible. Watching Kenyan runner Mary Keitany storm home in the London marathon in 2.18.37 showed that those days really are over, and the women’s 100 metre record now stands at 10.49, which would easily have won the men’s event in 1912. Advanced training methods, better nutrition and expectations have had their inevitable effects.

There has been quite a lot of research done on the limits of human speed, and physiologists are more prepared to pronounce on this aspect of athletics than that of endurance running, the limits of which seem to be rapidly disappearing into the distance along with its practitioners themselves. Speed is obviously a different matter: world records in the 100 metres go down by hundredths of seconds and improvements have been slowing down over time, suggesting that the limit to human speed is relatively close. A perfect start, lack of wind resistance, peak form, a good attitude and tough competition also have to combine to create the world record, and this combination isn’t always present.

A number of scientists, such as John Einmahl, Sander Smeets, Peter Weyand and John Hutchinson, have been looking at the question, and think that performance enhancing developments - not drugs, but legal enhancements like improved shoes and track surfaces - might be the key factors now in pushing back the barriers. However, these might fall foul of regulations similar to those which now prohibit swimming competitors from wearing special swimsuits. This again raises the issue of which technological advances should be approved and which not. So, more headaches for the IOC.


J R Hutchinson

‘Biomechanical modelling and sensitivity analysis of bipedal running ability. 1. Extant taxa’ in Journal of morphology. Vol 262, no 1: 2004, 421-440

Lending collections shelfmark: 5021.000000.

J H Einmahl; J H Smeets

‘Ultimate 100-m world records through extreme value theory’ in Statistica Neerlandica. Vol 65, no 1, 2011, 32-42

Lending collections shelfmark: 8447.390000.

P G Weyand et al.

‘The biological limits to running speed are imposed from the ground up’ in Journal of applied physiology. Vol 108, no 4, 2010, 950-961

Lending collections shelfmark: 4946.000000.







20 April 2012

Feeding the Olympics

Simone Bacchini writes: 

Sport may be good for you but food advertising during the Olympics may not. As the opening of the Games is now less than a hundred days away, another threat has appeared on the horizon. Forget terrorism, tube strikes, and the spectre of a flu-pandemic; all these we can cope with. The latest menace to be identified is far more insidious, and much more difficult to steer clear of: food. To be precise, it’s food advertising by way of sponsorships during the Olympics and Paralympics that has been singled out as a danger. Not to the Country’s security but to Olympic spectators’ waistlines, especially children’s. 

The BBC ( reports that campaigners from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AoMRC) are calling for Olympic sponsors such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Cadbury to limit the visibility of their advertising which, they argue, sends out subliminal messages and encourages unhealthy eating and drinking habits, especially in children. 

I do not doubt that the AoMRC’s ‘War On Obesity’ is well-intentioned. Unquestionably, many diseases that plague our affluent society are linked to unhealthy eating habits, which are especially difficult to combat if acquired early in life. So I’m not surprised about this latest warning. What I find interesting is – once again – the way in which it is framed. What the AoMRC seem to object to the most is the apparent contradiction that emerges from the juxtaposition of lofty Olympic ideals with less desirable messages from Olympic sponsors. 

But is it realistic to ask the Olympics organisers to either refuse or limit the visibility of certain sponsors? I doubt it. The Games are not only a mega-event; they’re also a ‘mega-stage’. It is not only athletes that gain maximum exposure by taking part, it is also the sponsors. And the bigger the event gets, the bigger the need for sponsors and their cash. It may not be all about money, but it’s certainly a lot to do with it. “The greatest show on earth” doesn’t pay for itself, in spite of the ever increasing revenue from things such as broadcasting rights. 

“Money always talks louder than principles in sport”, writes Richard Godwin in London’s Evening Standard ( In his view, whether some of the major sponsors of London 2012 are “ethical” is highly debatable, to say the least. One may disagree with him, but it is undeniable that in the world of modern sports the distance between the official rhetoric and reality is far greater than the distance marathon runners need to cover. 

Is it only o question of size? Perhaps modern sport suffers from gigantism; having grown to be so big, it needs to be fed and one can’t be too picky about where the ‘food’ is coming from. And yet, as the AoMRC reminds us, nutrition matters. Should sport perhaps go on a diet?




J.A Davis, The Olympic Games Effect. Singapore: Wiley, 2012.

London reference collections shelfmark:

SPIS 796.0698 DAV 12


V. Packard, The Hidden Persuaders. London: Penguin, 1981.

London reference collections shelfmark:


04 April 2012

Just keep going!

 Sunday 1st April and I am up at 5.30 (engineering works on the railway get in the way of a more civilised start) getting ready for the Wholefoods Breakfast Run in Kingston which I’m competing in with my BL colleague, Sally.

 The last visit to this event was distinguished by my tripping over near the start, twisting my ankle and then doing the full 16 miles (twice round the course - though I’m only doing one circuit on this occasion) by attempting to run on one leg only, so I know the bit of the kerb I’m going to be avoiding this time round. It’s a fine day and men and women of all shapes and sizes are gathering at the start. I’m a bit cold so instead of running in my flash running gear, I’m wearing some baggy grey tracksuit bottoms that have seen better days. It’s a bit infra dig but after years of running I’ve got over doing the fashionable thing. Everyone else looks hot though: elaborate pony tails, snazzy socks and fake tan are in evidence. And that’s only the men. The other thing is, it looks as if I’m the oldest person here by far. So what’s all that about? It’s a longish way but it’s a flat course, and it feels pretty easy, so with a bit of training anyone could do it, even an oldie – or ‘masters’ as we’re called in the States.

 I’m not aiming to beat any records so I can do a bit of nature spotting as I go round, and sure enough I notice some dive-bombing parakeets arguing in the treetops, two cormorants on a barge with some swans staring intently into the water, and as we approach Hampton Court it becomes clear that the trees in that vicinity are all festooned with great balls of mistletoe. All very interesting. Now and then a runner going at some incredible speed zips past on the outside. These are the people aiming to win, to do a PB.  Some are going round twice and already lapping the 8.2 milers.

 So why isn’t everyone doing this, and more particularly people of a certain age? The early shoppers in Kingston look slightly bemused as we go past and after we finish it feels so great to sit in Patisserie Valerie drinking tea and eating a hot cross bun that I feel rather sorry for those who won’t get to feel this sense of – well I did it. It’s not that we’re in any way athletic stars, but we’ve all gone through the pain barrier, soldiered on when it got a bit tough and felt sheer happiness when it got easier. We were all practising mindfulness – the new buzzword for the chronically anxious – felt the breeze blowing past, heard all the sounds of nature with an almost supernatural clarity and listened to our bodies, however abusive they were being.

 Pierre de Coubertin saw the Olympic Games as a chance for the young to exert themselves in useful and fulfilling ways. The idea of lifelong exercise wasn’t part of the early 20th century equation, and in some ways that isn’t the Olympic Games emphasis now. In fact it is frequently stated that the aim is to get young people fired up with enthusiasm, and the athletes themselves are youthful and in the prime of life; why wouldn’t they appeal to people their age? It has to be said that the Games themselves – in their current incarnation - are really for the young.

 So what’s appealing about sport for the oldster? Just watching it isn’t the same thing at all. Taking part is the key. And perhaps it’s purely a cultural rather than a physical thing. In Christopher McDougall’s book about the Tarahumara tribe, people carry on ‘taking part’ as they age. Running, sometimes competing, is what life is all about in this neck of the woods, and people of all ages find it perfectly natural.

 There’s often something daunting and other-worldly about the performances turned in by the Olympians, who are so obviously different from the rest of us. To attain those heights would be impossible without that essential element of physical genius which is gifted to very few. So perhaps we need some less impressive sporting role models to provide us with a meaningful legacy for 2012: old ones, young ones, fast and slow ones: all sorts.



Christopher McDougall

 Born to run: the hidden tribe; the ultra-runners and the greatest race never seen

London: Profile, 2009

 London reference collections shelfmark: YK.2010.a.16168