A bar-chart shows two notable bumps in world-record setting: During the Cold War and during the modern steroid era.

The interactive version lets you see how a particular world-record fares over time.

The chart, using the filter that shows only women’s world records.

You’ll notice that records set in the mid-1990s seem to hold up exceptionally long. Is it because the athletes were using an unfair advantage? Just saying.

An alternate view by sporting event.

By geography.

Infographic: A 100-Year History Of Athletic World-Records

As you examine it closely, there’s a spate of records set during the Cold War and the steroid era. What gives?

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.

[Image: S.Pytel/Shutterstock]

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  • Nathan Ripley

    Great data visualization, I'm impressed!

    I wouldn't be so quick to credit drugs with the increase in world records. As a swimmer, I know my sport has evolved a lot, even over the past 10 years or so. The 'cheater' suits have come and gone, but new rules like the ones that define legal starting blocks and new training techniques keep pushing the sport forward. Combine that with the rapid rise in popularity of club/age group swimming and you've got tons of potentially record breaking swimmers in each generation of athletes.

  • Wade Johnston

    My initial thought was that the swimsuits that were introduced in 2000 and used through 2008 could have played a role. But when looking at the data a bulk of the records in 99'-'00 are in weightlifting. Definitely doping.

    The other spike was in the 70's for the swimming events when the East Germans used state sponsored doping to dominate the pool. 

  • Adriana Rivas

    The reason for the spike in weightlifting records is not due to doping. In the Sports view, if you click inside the weightlifting pool you see that there is a note stating that the records for weightlifting only show records set AFTER the restructuring of the sport in weight categories in 1993 and 1998. The whole sport was restructured at that time changing the value of the records significantly.

  • Steven Leighton

    This is terrific!
    Looks like the USA might be the master of the new steroid/other  enhancement age.
    Archery is interesting because steroid/other and new tech don't really distort the sport.
    Gymnastics would be interesting to look at because normally it's the 5' 5" guy who wins (well since the 1960's when they changed the rules to benefit the short guys: Leverage and body mechanics).
    I noticed on Team GB's bronze medal mens gym team there were two reletive giants. Two guys who were 6' tall and weighed around 170-175 lbs! 

    Great work done on this data. CONGRATULATIONS!
    And thanx to you Mark..