INTRODUCTION: Progression of world records (WRs) in athletics is a reliable mean to assess the potentiality of the human body, which also reflects how society has evolved over time and will continue to evolve. We conducted a quantitative analysis of WRs in measurable Olympic events from nine representative disciplines (100, 400, 1500, 10,000 m, marathon, long jump, high jump, shot put and javelin throw) in order to identify progression and trends. SOURCES OF DATA: Data were gathered for the years 1900-2007 from the database of the International Olympic Committee. AREAS OF AGREEMENT: Overall, the relative improvement of athletic performance was higher in women than in men, being nearly doubled across the different specialities. The biggest increases were observed for javelin throw and shot put, in both men and women, respectively. Conversely, the improvement in race time was directly related to the race distance. We also observed a consistent significant linear model of WRs progression in time, although the improvement has substantially stopped or reached a plateau in several specialities. GROWING POINTS: The observed trend might be explained by a variety of factors, including social and environmental changes, natural selection, advances in training and sport physiology, ergogenic aids and, possibly, doping. EMERGING AREAS FOR DEVELOPING RESEARCH: These results are discussed in a multifaceted approach, taking into account several biological, environmental and technological issues that might explain the trends observed.
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