Sunday, December 13, 2009


Boris, in response to last night's blog, commented that it would be interesting to compare developments in athletics with those in memory sports. The fact that the winner of the 100m sprint in the first Olympic Games in 1896 did a sensational 12 seconds, for instance. Actually, there are other similarities apart from the gradual change in what is considered an exceptional performance - at the first modern Olympics, the athletes paid their own way over to Greece, the competitors were drawn from only those people who could afford the trip and who knew the event existed (C. B. Fry, probably the foremost British athlete at the time, didn't find out about the Olympics until after it had happened), and a lot of the rules and regulations were made up on the spur of the moment as and when they were needed. Memory sport is still very much in this kind of state at the moment, but if the Olympics can go from such humble beginnings to a really big thing, who knows?

Also, the 100m in those days was run from a standing start, on a dirt track, wearing rubber-soled boots and baggy shorts. The way they've improved on the basic principles of running in a straight line as quickly as possible is very much like the way we've improved on the way to memorise a pack of cards.

Actually, the comparison with swimming is even more similar. In 1878, when the first "world records" were published by the Amateur Swimming Association, the world record for the 100 yards freestyle was 76.75 seconds. The modern 100m record has knocked 30 seconds off that - helped by the development of "techniques" like the crawl (which was a brand new thing, distrusted by most Victorian swimmers, in 1878), swimming trunks instead of full-body bathing suits, holding swimming races in pools rather than the sea, modifications to the rules about diving starts, all the way up to the modern day and Michael Phelps's bionic body-suit (without which I suspect he'd drown if you pushed him in a swimming pool).

If there's one way in which memory sport is different (apart from the fact that it's a pointless mental exercise for people with too much time on their hands rather than a display of the awesome physical prowess of the human body at its peak), it's that the developments have been much more rapid, and the records have tumbled down much more dramatically. Who knows what will have happened in a hundred years? I hope I'm still around to see it, anyway...

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