At the 2012 London Summer Olympics, Usain Bolt’s gold-medal 100-meter sprint clocked in at an astonishing 9.63 seconds. Yohan Blake and Justin Gatlin came in 2nd and 3rd place, with their respective times of 9.75 seconds and 9.79 seconds. While much media attention is given to Bolt’s freakish speed, the entire field was fast. Out of all the medal-winning Olympic performances since 1896, only one would have beaten Bolt’s, Blake’s, or Gatlin’s time in 2012: Usain Bolt’s 9.69sec sprint in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
In the video above, the New York Times compares the 100-meter times for every single Olympic medalist between 1896 and 2012. Bolt’s gold-medal time in London represents a 19.75% improvement from the top time of 12.0 seconds in 1896. As the video notes, the fastest eight-year-old in America today would be less than one second off the bronze-medal winner from 1896.
Prediction Model for the Men’s 100-Meter Dash over Time. Source: Wired
And biostatisticians indicate that current sprint times have not yet reached their limit -- although they are a bit ahead. A mathematical model developed by researchers prior to Bolt’s 9.69 in 2008 didn't foresee a 9.69-second sprint until 2030. The model predicted a gradual progression to a sub-9.6 sprint by 2100. Bolt broke the model again and ran a 9.58 in 2010.
While Usain Bolt may be a once-in-a-lifetime outlier, the performance of other top sprinters in recent years shows us the significant improvements made on a basic human activity. Even though these improvements come at mere fractions of a second.