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Evolution and Revolution: Gauging the Impact of Technological and Technical Innovation on Olympic Performance

A number of studies have pointed to a plateauing of athletic performance, with the suggestion that further improvements will need to be driven by revolutions in technology or technique. In the present study, we examine post-war men’s Olympic performance in jumping events (pole vault, long jump, high jump, triple jump) to determine whether performance has indeed plateaued and to present techniques, derived from models of human growth, for assessing the impact of technological and technical innovation over time (logistic and double logistic models of growth). Significantly, two of the events involve well-documented changes in technology (pole material in pole vault) or technique (the Fosbury Flop in high jump), while the other two do not. We find that in all four cases, performance appears to have plateaued and that no further “general” improvement should be expected. In the case of high jump, the double logistic model provides a convenient method for modelling and quantifying a performance intervention (in this case the Fosbury Flop). However, some shortcomings are revealed for pole vault, where evolutionary post-war improvements and innovation (fiberglass poles) were concurrent, preventing their separate identification in the model. In all four events, it is argued that further general growth in performance will indeed need to rely predominantly on technological or technical innovation.