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September 18, 2017 | by  | in Sports |
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“Faster Horses”

Henry Ford is often credited as saying: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” — the idea being that radical innovation does it arise merely from incremental improvement on the norm. Maybe if performance enhancing drugs had been developed before the combustion engine we would have ended up with faster horses, but as it stands we have Henry Ford to thank for the popularisation of the motor vehicle.

Since Usain Bolt broke all records and blew our collective minds at the 2008 Olympics by obliterating the world record 100m dash in casual fashion, more and more runners have broken the vaunted 10-second barrier. Bolt has redefined excellence in his field as well as forcing radical improvement from his competition. Yet Bolt could neither have been a product of Ford’s rationalist production line or a crowd sourced “faster horse”.

Elite sports is quickly becoming a more science-driven field, undergoing a radical technological shift along the lines of Ford’s mass producing production line. Advances in nutrition, training, monitoring and the rest of the fields that make up sport science have athletes playing longer, recovering faster, and just generally being “better”. But an emphasis on scientific development can simply reinstall traditional thinking without making any real advancements if it only focuses on what was previously successful.

Bolt on a basic level looks nothing like what had succeeded before him. Standing at 1.94m he is a full 7cm taller than any previous 100m dash winner. Paying attention to what had proven successful in the past, Bolt’s height and build would have easily ruled him out. Yet he is responsible for the sport’s greatest paradigm shift.

Bolt disrupts a popular notion that athletes and sport are on a continuing trajectory of improvement through advances in biology, nutrition, and other sport science fields. He is a classic example of why we watch and care so deeply about sport, in that his prowess is truly exceptional and equally unexpected.

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