We May Be Good, But—
Modern champions of track and field in many cases have failed to beat records set up by the stars of 20 and 30 years ago. Why? asks
H. H. ROXBOROUGH
BACK in 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue," the one-way trip from the Old World to the New required sixtynine days. In recent years, aerial navigators have crossed the Atlantic in less than thirty hours and Kaye Don has driven his famous speedboat, Miss England II., at a rate approaching 111 miles an hour.
Twenty-two years ago, that daredevil driver of racing motor cars, “Barney” Oldfield, flashed along a mile of speedway in just about twenty-eight seconds. In 1932, that formidable record has been reduced by Sir Malcolm Campbell to a mile in less than fifteen seconds.
In 1906, Santos Dumont, one of France’s notable pioneer aviators, established an airplane speed record of twenty-six miles an hour. Last September, on a muggy day when the weather was barely safe for flying, Flight-Lieutenant G. H. Stainforth piloted a plane over a three-kilometer course at a speed so dizzy that it had to be recorded by an electric camera, and went down on the records as over 408 miles an hour.
Down through the years, man plus a machine, in water, on land or through air, has made sensational progress in the conquest of time and space.
Why, then, is man alone running only slightly faster, jumping only a little farther, throwing the weights just a very short distance beyond the speeds and distances of the athletes of twenty-five years ago?
Why are the performances of this generation so frequently inferior to those of our fathers—as they are when due allowance is made for improved facilities?
This is Olympic year, and already the nations are noisily proclaiming the excellencies of Komig, Oda, Ladoumegue, Nurmi, O’Callaghan, Spitz, and a score of other favorite sons; and still, notwithstanding the undoubted prowess of such stars, the champions of former days have left marks that will rarely be erased. Let’s take a look at a few of the records of today and yesterday.
Consider the sprinters. In the century dash the best performance of recent years was contributed by Frank Wykoff, sensational California flash, who travelled 100 yards in 9-2/5 seconds. Forty-six years ago, Wharton, a colored sprinter, had a record of ten seconds; thirty-seven years back, “Barney” Wefers, of Georgetown University, reduced the time to 9-4/5 seconds, and before the passing of the nineteenth century six others had the same record. Twenty-five years ago, Arthur Duffey and Dan Kelly had clipped another fifth of a second from the former best time, and, indeed, E. Donovan had been reliably credited with a mark of 9-2/5 seconds back in 1895. Thus,in the 100 yards dash, premier track event, even if we eliminate Donovan’s
freak performance, we find that man has gained just one-fifth of a second, about two yards in distance, in more than a quarter-century.
In two companion sprints, the records show that the advance in the 220 yards race, in thirty years of attack, has been only three-fifths of a second; while the time of thirty seconds consumed by H. Hutchens in covering 300 yards has not been equalled in nearly fifty years.
The quarter-mile race has always been a popular event, and any runner who has bettered a time of forty-nine seconds has been a head-liner. Yet, as early as 1881, L. E. Myers, competing in England, recorded 48-3/5seconds; eight years later H. C. L. Tindall, a Cambridge University athlete, galloped the distance in 48 % seconds, and the best mark of all time has been unbroken in the intervening sixteen years since J. E. Meredith made his great effort.
Six years ago, Dr. Otto Peltzer, one of Germany’s contributions to the running world, ran a half-mile faster than any other athlete in all time. But Peltzer’s performance, marvellous though it was, was less than two seconds speedier than the time made in an international duel between London and New York Athletic clubs at Manhattan Field in 1895. Furthermore, no runner has ever bettered the record for the three-quarter mile set up by T. P. Connoff thirty-seven years ago.
Back in 1886, W. George, an Englishman, galloped the mile in four minutes \2% seconds. In the intervening forty-six years many thousands of capable runners have attacked the record of that “Victorian” miler; but only four men have improved the performance, and the present record of the capable Frenchman, Ladoumegue, is less than four seconds better than the time made by the English master —an improvement of less than two per cent in almost half a century.
In middle-distance running, Paavo Nurmi, the truly great Finn who has outclassed all his contemporaries, has
established records that are outstanding, but the lx*st performances ever made at six, seven, eight and nine miles are still the cherished possessions of Alf. Shrubb, an English runner now resident in Canada, and were the result of an effort made on a November afternoon nearly twenty-eight years back.
The liest high jump in all time was made in February of this year when a New York University student crossed the bar at 6 feet 8/2 inches. This figure represents a remarkable accomplishment, and yet athletic statistics remind us that seventy-three years ago an Englishman named Vardy jumped 5 feet 11 inches; fifty-six years ago Malcolm Brooks, an Oxford student, cleared 6 feet 2 / 2 inches; while, back in 1895, “Mike” Sweeney, whose own height was less than 5 feet 9 inches, leaped 6 feet 5% inches. Such is the evidence that in more than a third of a century the flight of the jumper has increased by less than three inches.
The present mark for the running broad jump is only five inches farther than the long leap made by “Pat” O’Connor in 1901; the world’s hop, step and jump record established last October by Mikio Oda, the Japanese champion, is less than thirteen inches beyond the efforts of Irish athletes of a generation back; the best performance ever made in the spectacular pole-vaulting is only ten inches higher than the altitude attained by M. S. Wright over twenty years ago; while the standing broad jump record made by R. C. Ewry in 1905 is still the supreme distance achieved in this event.
Similarly, “the strong men” of 1932 are not much superior to the weight-tossers of a couple of decades back. For instance, Duncan, a United States discus thrower, in 1912 heaved the steel saucer over 156 feet, and the present world’s record is only seven feet farther. Twenty-three years ago husky Ralph Rose tossed the sixteen-pound shot more than fifty feet, and the current mark established in February last is just thirty inches farther; while, in the hammer-throwing competition, no advance has been made since P. J. Ryan hurled the sixteen-pound ball nearly 190 feet, just nineteen years ago.
If any further evidence of man’s slow athletic progress is required, it can be pointed out that practically all the important walking records were made by the “heel and toe” champions of 1912 or earlier.
Thus, in a generation, the general improvement in man’s athletic prowess has not averaged three per cent. Why? Were the times, distances and records of former years unreliable? Did the stop-watches stop too quickly? Were
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We May Be Good, But
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tape lines pre-shrunk? Were officials so anxious to create new marks that they trifled with truth?
Robert Falconer, an old-time sprint champion of the Maritimes and an official timer who has possibly clocked more track athletes than any other Canadian, has great confidence in the integrity and ability of the timers of pre-twentieth century days. Mr. Falconer reminds us that originally all timing was on second watches, then 1/5 second, and now a world’s record may change on the small margin of 1/10 second. When the recordings were “wider,” a runner had to show a much greater superiority before the new mark was accepted. There is also evidence to show that forty-five years ago, the officials prided themselves upon their accuracy. In 1887, for instance, we find a sports authority declaring that “some older records are open to suspicion, for it is only in recent years that records have been taken and accounts kept with accuracy and precision.”
Evidently, the importance of proper timing was not neglected in the old days; neither were jumping records accepted without close scrutiny. In 1900, for example, a United States University student jumped 24 feet 7 inches and easily broke the former mark, but the record was rejected by the officers of the day because “a following wind had aided the jumper.”
Apparently, man’s mediocre improvement in athletics cannot be attributed to incompetent officials or defective measuring tools. Neither can it be ascribed to inferior equipment. As a matter of fact present facilities are much superior to those of the past. There was a time when all jumps were made on hard ground instead of into a soft, sandy pit; when pole vaulters used a heavy hickory pole with a steel spike in the end, in place of the modem, light springy bamboo pole with a pointed end which slides into a specially prepared wooden chute; when the hammer handle was made from wood instead of wire. Today running tracks are wider, better drained and much faster than they used to be; clothing is lighter; shoes are spiked in a variety of ways best adapted to the particular event; the science of coaching is much farther advanced; the experiences of the past have been available for the present student; moving pictures portray the styles of the stars; the inspirations of international and world-wide competition are more frequent, and still the rise is just barely perceptible. Againwhy?
In search of the answer I sought out three of the best informed sportsmen on this continent:
Ed. Archibald. Canadian champion polevaulter of a quarter-century ago, a member
of two Olympic teams, a founder and director of one of the largest camps for boys in the Dominion; Walter Knox, the greatest all-round champion ever* developed in Canada, a winner of five national titles in one day, a holder of the world’s all-round professional championships, and former coach of both Canadian and British Olympic teams, and Lawson Robertson, track and field coach of University of Pennsylvania and twice coach of famous United States Olympic teams.
The opinions of these three men who have had personal athletic experience in the past and who have intimate contact with present day sports direction, should be worth listening to. And, remarkably enough, all three attribute man’s relatively small athletic improvement during the past three decades to the overdevelopment of schoolboy athletes. They say unanimously that the immature lad is now pushed to such keen competitive effort that by the time he should attain his full strength he has “buried his energy and vitality in the cinders of a high school track,” and has lost the power, ambition and incentive so essential in record smashing.
There is evidence to support their belief.
Most of the men who made the records of the past were much older than the celebrities of today. L. E. Myers, who ran the quartermile in 48-3'5 seconds fifty years ago, was twenty years old before he ever appeared in competition; W. G. George was twenty-six years old when he broke all world’s amateur records from 1,000 yards to twelve miles, and was twenty-eight when he ran the memorable mile in 1886. Alf. Shrubb never ran a race until he was twenty. “Bobby” Kerr, the great Canadian sprinter, won the 100 and 220 yards British championships and the 200 metre Olympic title, when he was twenty-six years old. “Jim” Thorpe, the famous Indian athlete who won the allround title at the 1912 Olympics, never competed athletically until he was a mature man. Arthur Newton, who astounds the athletic world with his long distance running. did not compete in an athletic contest until he was nearly forty. “Matt” McGrath was thirty, and John Flanagan thirty-four, when they were the leading weight-throwers of the world. Dennis Horgan was twentyfour when he won his first shot-putting championship but he continued winning •English, Canadian and United States titles until he was forty-three years old.
T(xiay, particularly in Canada and the
United States, the successful athletes whose
years exceed twenty-five are comparatively
few. Furthermore, the small number who
do continue are composed principally oí
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those who did not engage in serious compe-
I tition until they were approaching twenty
years of age. It is significant that all the
world’s records in races from 600 yards up
to the marathons and beyond, are held by
German, French, Finnish and English
runners, each representing a country where
the schoolboy phenomenons are compara-
Nor is the failure to better substantially the athletic accomplishments of our fathers the only result of this exploitation of immature lads. Unfortunately, this “overemphasis,” has proved positively harmful to the health and scholarship of the boys.
After a study of high school sports recently, the Carnegie Institute reported, "The heart of the average fifteen-year-old boy is smaller in proportion to the size of his body than will be the case when he has reached the age of twenty; the growth of the heart comes late in the period of development; it is a common observation that high school athletes have frequently indulged so strenuously in athletic competition before reaching college that their physical powers are seriously impaired.”
Lawson Robertson believes that in many cases young lads are actually encouraged to destroy themselves physically in order that their school or club may win ; that competition should be reserved for only those who have reached the age of eighteen, and who have qualified for such competition by a period of training and development which has extended over at least three years. Furthermore this coach who is well qualified to express an opinion declares: “If I had my way, the practice of keeping schoolboy records would be abolished.”
Scholarship is also affected. A father I know had a son seventeen years old who was a member of a Canadian high school rugby team. This senior team demanded four practices and one game each week. The father believed this overemphasis was affecting his lad’s study, so he made an enquiry into the scholastic standing of those students who had made the senior football team. Here is a summary of his findings:
In one high school at the term’s conclusion, fifteen rugby players tried fifty-nine examinations and in forty-nine of them the grading was second, third or just credit rating; at another school, famous for its rugby, sixteen members of the senior team wrote on fifty-six Junior Matriculation papers, and the examiners’ reports revealed the deplorable result that only two of those fifty-six received seventy-five marks, while thirty-three of the tests obtained less than sixty per cent of the possible. In other words in the combined total of one hundred and fifteen examination papers written by these student athletes, only twelve were considered first class, twenty-two were seconds, nineteen obtained thirds and sixtytwo were placed in the lowest pass grade.
So there is some evidence that the schoolboys of our day, like hothouse plants, are being forced to an athletic bloom before their physical powers have been firmly rooted ; that this artificial growth is producing champions who “fade” before maturity; that this “straining instead of training” is decidedly detrimental to the mental development and health of the teen-age boy. Meanwhile, the athletic glories of a former age are still a challenge to the slowly developed, properly trained runner, jumper and weight-thrower of 1932.