What It Takes To Be A Champion

TED Radio Host Guy Raz speaks with science writer and Sports Illustrated contributor David Epstein about why athletes are getting faster and stronger every year.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Olympic motto is faster, higher, stronger. And year after year, athletes seem to live up to those words, but how?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DAVID EPSTEIN: We definitely are better. Although, it sort of depends how you look at the question because in some ways, we might not be as much better as we like to believe.

SIMON: David Epstein writes about sports science. He spoke to Guy Raz at the Ted Radio Hour.

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GUY RAZ, BYLINE: So consider the 100-meter dash. When Jesse Owens set the world record in 1936, he was the fastest man on earth. But had he been racing against Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, the current record holder, Bolt would beat him by 14 feet. David explained why in his Ted Talk.

EPSTEIN: Now, picture the stadium at the world championships of the 100 meters.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS COMPETITION)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER 2: The Olympic, men's 100 meters finals. Thompson - Trinidad, Powell - Jamaica.

EPSTEIN: And I want you to pretend that Jesse Owens is in that race.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER 2: Set.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER 3: On their way. And Gatlin got away brilliantly, and he's ahead of the field at the moment...

EPSTEIN: An American sprinter jumps out to the front.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS COMPETITION)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER 3: Bolt going very near. (Yelling) Here comes Usain Bolt.

EPSTEIN: Usain Bolt passes him. And as the runners come to the finish, you'll hear a beep...

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

EPSTEIN: ...As each man crosses the line.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER 3: (Yelling) Usain Bolt storming through...

(SOUNDBITE OF TWO BEEPS)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER 3: (Yelling) He takes it again. Blake gets the silver...

EPSTEIN: That first beep was Usain Bolt. That last beep was Jesse Owens. Listen to it again.

(SOUNDBITE OF TWO BEEPS)

EPSTEIN: When you think of it like that, it's not that big a difference, is it? And then consider that Usain Bolt started by propelling himself out of blocks down a specially fabricated carpet, designed to allow him to travel as fast as humanly possible. Jesse Owens, on the other hand, ran on cinders. Rather than blocks, Jesse Owens had a gardening trowel that he had used to dig holes in the cinders to start from. Biomechanical analysis of the speed of Owens' joints shows that if he'd been running on the same surface as Bolt, he wouldn't have been 14 feet behind; he would have been within one stride. Rather than the last beep, Owens would have been the second beep. Listen to it again.

(SOUNDBITE OF TWO BEEPS)

EPSTEIN: That's the difference track surface technology has made, and it's done it throughout the running world.

RAZ: I mean, this is an incredible story. I mean, this - this would suggest that runners aren't really all that much faster today.

EPSTEIN: No, that's true that the difference between those guys - so what? It's about half a percent difference or 1 percent difference between a guy who's a living legend - and I don't think anybody else could even name one of those other beeps.

RAZ: Yeah.

EPSTEIN: That's what we're talking about. You're talking about a half percent difference in performance.

RAZ: It's incredible.

EPSTEIN: And it means, like, the difference between someone being a living legend and having an off-season job.

SIMON: David Epstein - he speaks to Guy Raz this weekend on the Ted Radio Hour about what really makes a champion athlete. This is NPR News.

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