How would Don Bradman have got on against the world’s fastest bowlers today? How would Muhammad Ali have managed against Wladimir Klitschko, Fred Perry against Novak Djokovic, Jesse Owens against Usain Bolt? How is technology changing performance, and could you edit the DNA of your kids, to run faster than Bolt?
Let’s start with the obvious one. Bolt has run the 100 metres in 9.58 seconds, Owens had a personal best of 10.2. It is not a hard question, Jesse Owens, sprint sensation of the 1930s, who managed to win gold in front of Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, probably wouldn’t have passed the first round in an Olympic competition today.
Or take as another example, the 2013 World Championship final, won by Bolt in 9.77 seconds. If Jesse Owens had run in that race, and completed the course in 10.2 seconds he would have been 14 feet behind the winner, and come last.
Err, not so fast. (Excuse the pun.) Owens ran on a soft cinder track, instead of using starting blocks, he dug a small hole in the track with a garden trowel. According to David Epstein, if Jesse Owens had run in the same race at Bolt in the final of the 2013 world Championship, in exactly the same way as when he ran his personal best, but benefiting from the track used in 2013, and using starting blocks, he would have come second in the race. In a Ted talk Epstein said: “Biomechanical analysis of the speed of Owens' joints shows that had he been running on the same surface as Bolt, he wouldn't have been 14 feet behind, he would have been within one stride.”
Or take Swimming. The 100 metres world record has been steadily falling, but as Epstein said: “The record is always trending downward, but it's punctuated” by steep cliffs in the curve tracking the trajectory of the falling records. The first cliff came in 1956, “with the introduction of the flip turn.” As Epstein explained: “Rather than stopping and turning around, athletes could somersault under the water and get going right away in the opposite direction.” The second cliff was the introduction of gutters on the side of the pool “that allows water to splash off, rather than becoming turbulence that impedes the swimmers as they race.” He said there was a final cliff, the introduction of full-body and low-friction swimsuits.”
How would Bradman, a man who boasted the highest average score in first-class cricket history, have got on against Shoaib Akhtar, Bret Lee or Jeffrey Thompson, three of the fastest bowlers in cricketing history? In fact, Bradman did face an ultra-fast bowler, Harold Larwood, a man who could supposedly bowl at between 95 and 100 miles per hour. Not that much slower than the very fastest in history. Yet, before the infamous Bodyline tour, when Larwood was told to bowl at the batsman rather that the wicket, he said of bowling against Bradman: “He was cruel in the way he flogged you . . . He made me very, very tired." The point of this anecdote is not to relive the clash between these titans of the game of cricket in the 1930s, but to point out that Bradman excelled at a time when one of the greatest bowlers in history plied his trade. It does not seem unreasonable to assume that if he could have been transported into a cricket game in the year 2016, Bradman would have stood out as a player of rare talent, but maybe not the greatest of all time.
Turning to boxing, it is hard to believe that the six feet three Ali could have lasted against the six foot six Klitschko. And you only need to watch a tennis match from the 1930s, to realise that Djokovic would probably have beaten Perry without dropping a game.
But then Novak Djokovic has a tennis racket partially made of graphene.
Technology makes a difference.
Of course, today’s athletes train harder and are subjected to healthier living. Can you imagine George Best competing in the Premiership, after using half time as an opportunity for a smoke break?
But all this begs the question, what next? Technology may have given Usain Bolt a big advantage over Jesse Owens, but how would he fare against an athlete in a few decades’ time? What difference can genetics make, for example? I've examined these questions in more detail in Sport technology, genetics and the future.@michaelbaxter_