Faster, Higher, Stronger: Keeping Modern Athletes Safe
The Olympics motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” which means “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” In all sports, athletes have followed that maxim, becoming physically larger and faster, defying scientists’ predictions that the human body simply can’t run faster or lift more. This development has also challenged scientists and sports equipment manufacturers to innovate to keep these rapidly moving bodies safe.
Pushing the Boundaries Again and Again
The reasons that athletes become bigger, faster and stronger are complex. Genes are one factor. Mark McClusky, author of the book “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” points to science and technology that improve training and performance as well. “You need to have the best PhDs onboard,” McClusky says. “This technological and analytical arms race is producing the best athletes in history.”1
Starting with the 1900 Olympics, the time for the 100-meter dash has decreased by 0.01194 seconds each year, in a nearly perfect linear improvement. In 1936, for example, Jesse Owens set a world record in the 100-meter dash at 10.3 seconds in the Olympics. If he ran the same time today, he would have finished 14 feet behind the winner.2
“In almost every Olympic sport, athletes have pushed the boundaries of performance throughout the years, and size is a key factor,” notes sportswriter Ben Strang.3
Unrelenting Laws of Physics
While the continuing increase in size and athletic ability contributes to marvelous displays on fields, rinks and courts, a side effect is less welcomed: the risk of injury.
In contact sports like football, rugby and hockey, the laws of physics are unrelenting. The force of a hit depends on three factors — body weight, speed and deceleration. The philosophy of “Citius, Altius, Fortius” has a direct influence on the force of those impacts.
For example, when Hall of Famer Morris “Red” Badgro, who played for the New York Giants in 1930, sacked a quarterback, he delivered 970 pounds of force. Badgro weighed less than 200 pounds, making him a paperweight in the modern NFL. Haloti Ngata, a present-day tackle who plays for the Detroit Lions, weighs 335 pounds. Ngata also runs the 40-yard-dash in under 5 seconds. That combination of size and speed makes him deliver hits with a bone-jarring 1,700 pounds of force.4
Bigger, stronger hockey players can reach speeds of 23 mph in full stride, resulting in mid-ice collisions that transfer a car-crash-worth of kinetic injury into their bones, tissues and organs. Extreme sports athletes can sail higher, meaning they land harder.
“Size and physical conditioning techniques in sports at all levels have evolved to create an intense athlete,” says Dr. Jaime Levine, the medical director of brain injury rehabilitation with the Rusk Institute in New York. “They’re able to create more force, power and speed than ever before and that leads to harder hits and a greater number of hits.”5
New Equipment Designs and Materials
Equipment makers have responded to the needs of athletes by working diligently to improve the protective nature of sporting equipment. Plastic helmets began to replace leather ones in the NFL in 1940. Modern facemasks were developed in 1955.6 In the 1970s, manufacturers included air-filled cushions in helmets to lessen the impact.
“Despite improvements in technology and equipment and modifications to rules in the game on both the pro and amateur level, there’s just a rougher style of play now than in the past,” Levine says of American football.
This rougher style of play is raising concerns among medical professionals, especially when it comes to concussions. The Center for Disease Control estimates that between 1.6 million and 3.8 million Americans suffer sports-related concussions every year.7 A growing number of football players have been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease typically caused by multiple hits to the head.
As quickly as equipment manufacturers make an advancement, the size and speed of athletes, as well as greater insight on what causes injuries, pushes them to do more. For example, the University of Michigan is prototyping a shock-absorbing football helmet, which has different layers of polycarbonate and flexible plastic that dissipate the energy after a player is hit — something current helmets can’t do.8
Manufacturers are also upgrading their gear with military-grade materials that are light enough and agile enough to not affect performance on the field. Major league baseball players have used DuPont™ Kevlar® padding inserts in their caps and Kevlar®-coated cups — the same material that protects police officers and soldiers from bullets.9,10
Olympic hockey players have worn Kevlar® socks to protect against being spiked by cleats and extreme sports athletes have sported a variety of Kevlar® gear to let them soar higher and farther than ever before.11
According to The Future of Sports, a study put together by a brain trust of futurists, sportswriters and other experts, robotic exoskeletons will be implemented in the future because of their incredible enhancement of athlete protection.12
And, if current trends continue, athletes in 2040 will likely be strong enough and fast enough to be nearly superheroes by current standards. Innovation in sporting gear will be more important than ever.