Athletes seem to get better every year, but every year is not full of world records. A world record takes something special—a combination of superior training (aided by everything from camera systems to better understood diets), superior competitive technology (consider the now-banned synthetic swimsuits) and, of course, divine athleticism (the utter freaks of nature like Michael Phelps).
It’s a point that’s fascinatingly explored in this interactive infographic by GE and R/GA. Each dot represents a world record placed in a summer game of that year, from swimming to javelin throw. And over time, these dots tell a clear story: We do indeed set more world records over time, but some years are much bigger than others.
Take WWI and WWII. Their expanses of time (1914-18 and 1939-45) are nearly nonexistent when it comes to world records. But afterwards, in the 1940s-1970s, there’s a rash of record setting, which also happens to coincide with the rise of modern training methods and the red-hot proxy wars being waged through sport by the U.S. and U.S.S.R. affiliates. But 1999 was the single most world-record-setting year in a century of history, with 112 set during that time. It was also the peak of the steroid era, the same year when Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire had their famous, season-long home run derby. And it’s merely the beginning of a several-year swell of record-setting, which also coincides with the period where almost every professional sport struggled to find a response to the doping problem. More recently, things have quieted dramatically.
But it’s hard to look at the graphic and still believe that steroids don’t play a part in the average world record. Just toggle the image to reveal how many world records are set during Olympic years and you’ll see just how few records are placed during each four year bump, the very years you’d imagine athletes would train most diligently to dominate. It might say something about the stringency of steroid testing during the Olympics (or it might say something about the Olympics, as the scarier stage on which to be busted).
That’s a cynical view, I know. Maybe the data is hiding other unquantifiable factoids about world records and their relationship to the Olympics. Maybe athletes, on whole, just perform worse during the Summer Games than isolated competitions because of nerves and ceremonial climate. Maybe trainers aren’t optimizing athletic conditioning for the ebb and flow of a four-year-peak cycle. Or maybe … look, I’ve got nothing else I can make up with a straight face. I’m sorry, but it’s probably related to doping.