Graphing Athletics: The 100 metre sprint

For many, the 100 metre sprint is the must-see event of track athletics. Although everything is over in less than 10 seconds, the raw speed of the athletes captivates billions. To see just how fast Usain Bolt is, see our blog article on the subject.

Perhaps its the primal simplicity of the event which draws the huge crowds and brings the fame and fortune associated with winning the event. Perhaps it’s because we consider a medal-winning sprinter to have attained a pinnacle of athleticism. Whatever it is, the event commands a fascination which bridges gender and age boundaries.

To kick off our series of graphing athletics, we’ve created 2, 100 metre datasheets which examine the worldwide best performances in the 100 metre sprint since 1896.

By Beat, via Wikimedia Commons

Visit our datasheets!


Click the images above to visit the male and female 100 metre datasheets.

Our datasheets show a number of different things, the schematic below shows how different areas correspond to different sets of information.

FusionEx Dashboard
There are four main areas of the datasheet to explore

An explanation of each region is given below

Top Athletes:

We’re looking at the very pinnacle of performance. An athlete only appears here if they achieved one of the three best performances in the year (this doesn’t necessarily mean a medal or award, the time could have been achieved in a qualifying event). The larger the name appears the greater the number of performances. If you hover over a name you’ll be able to see how many times a particular athlete achieved one of the best performances of the year.

Best performances:

This line plot shows how performance has improved (or decreased) over time. Each point on the plot shows the best time for that year. Sometimes performances improve in consecutive years, sometimes not. There are lots of external influences which can lead to an overall increase or decrease in performance.

Top Countries by Decade:

The fortunes of a country change over time. A nation can dominate a particular sport for many years only to disappear from the rankings years later. This plot attempts to chart this rise and fall in fortune.

Each vertical bar represents a decade from our data. Please note that the first and last bars are not complete decades. We only have data from 1896 until 2015. The colours within the bar represent a country. The larger the proportion of a particular colour, the more dominant that country was during that decade. For example, if the U.S.A is represented as white and takes up 50% of the bar, 50% of the best performances during that decade were made by an athlete from the U.S.A.

Obviously, we can’t represent every single country in this way and maintain legibility. We’ve chosen the top ten countries based on their single best decade. A country only has to perform well in a single decade to appear here.

Top Countries Overall

This pie chart shows the overall picture of performance. The share of each country is based on their overall share of performances. Simply put, how often have athletes of that country appeared in the top 25?

We’ve chosen ten countries to represent, this time the top ten is based on their overall performance throughout time. A country which only performed well in a single decade won’t appear here.

The story

So what key events have taken place over the history of the event? What stand out information can we glean from the performance data we have at our fingertips?

Dominant nations

Early decades are dominated by Western European nations. Great Britain, Germany France and Sweden feature heavily in the 1890s until the 1930s. While it may appear surprising at first that Sweden is the second most dominant nation in the 1910s it is worth remembering that recreational sport was still, predominantly, a European past-time. As global prosperity increased throughout the 20th century European dominance waned as more countries could afford to compete at the required level. This effect is still seen in sports such as track cycling and sailing where the requirement for expensive equipment and infrastructure rules out poorer nations from competing.

A beneficial side-effect of increased competition is improved performance. While a sub-eleven second time was world-class in the 1900s, a sub-ten second time was required by the 1990s — a 9% reduction. As the world population grew and more of the population could compete, more individuals with a genetic and environmental predisposition for high-performance could choose sport as a viable way to invest their time.

By the 1930s Jamaica make an appearance as a top nation in the male records while the U.S.S.R start a dominant streak around the same time. It is interesting to note that the U.S.S.R was so dominant in female sprinting but not so for males (the same goes for the German Democratic Republic).

Much has been made of the prevalence of doping in athletics prior to routine testing in the 1980s. It has also been noted that performance enhancing drugs have a proportionately greater effect on women than men. It is speculation to suggest that this is the reason for Soviet dominance in the women’s era but there is a stark statistic around this issue.

Random, compulsory drug testing was introduced in 1989. A year after the women’s record dipped to 10.49 seconds. Look at the average time for the top 25 in that era. In 1988 the average of the top 25 dips below 11 seconds for the first time. After drug testing was introduced it rose to 11.15 seconds and wouldn’t dip below 11 seconds again until 2008. The women’s 1988 100 metre world record has never looked in danger of being broken.

What is clear from the datasheet is the constant presence and eventual dominance of the U.S.A as a sprinting nation — in the 1980s 52% of the top male performances were made by an American sprinter. The cold-war played out on the athletics track for several decades and the Soviet Union’s presence is seen to peak in the 1950s but this opposition disappeared after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. However, the new challenger to the U.S.A, Jamaica, is quickly gaining a strong foothold. So far in the 2010s, Jamaica accounts for 28% of top male performances to the U.S.A’s 34%. Jamaica doesn’t have the population, wealth or industrial might of the U.S.S.R, so how is it able to compete?

Theories abound related to the specific genetic (and epigenetic) effects or other environmental factors which result in physiological advantages for the Jamaican (this article has a nice breakdown of the evidence). Also, success begets success, the cult of the sprinter is so great in Jamaica that their sporting culture has evolved to focus intensively on sprint type events. Do they do this because of a natural predisposition or are they now so dominant because of this intense focus? The question is a tricky one and difficult to unpick. The effect is similar to the East-African’s focus on longer-distance events and it’s something we’ll visit in a future article.

Dominant Individuals

Of course, Jamaica’s success can’t be discussed in earnest without referring to the phenomenal Usain Bolt who has dominated top-level sprinting for most of the last decade. However, who have been the key figures in sprinting over the past century?

For the men, Carl Lewis emerges as a strong presence in the all time greats with 8 appearances in the top 3. A legend of the sport, Carl Lewis dominated sprinting and the long-jump for a decade (a cross-over that doesn’t tend to happen in the current-age). There are a number of other characters which might be less familiar. Richard Rau is an example of early European dominance, a German runner who unfortunately became involved with the Nazi party as an SS officer.

It is interesting in these results that figures can be present without necessarily reaching the pinnacle of the sport. Hermes Ramirez (of Cuba) has six appearances but only a single Olympic silver medal.

For the women it’s interesting that there seems to be much more longevity. All of the three most dominant women have more appearances in the top 3 than the top ranked male.

The legendary Francina Blakers-Koen was at the top of her game for 13 years! She won four gold medals at the 1948 Olympics as a 30 year-old mother of two. Merlene Ottey won a world indoor medal at the age of 43! Both of these athletes hail from completely different eras of the sport so their longevety cannot be attributed to certain conditions that existed at a certain time (for example less competitive at an earlier time).

Merlene Ottey in 2011. By Kastom (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons



Performance History

The history of best performances show how times have progressed over the past 120 years. There are a huge number of factors which lead to this improvement. The number of countries and athletes competing in this time has greatly increased and is something we’ve already discussed. However, what other, more subtle things might affect start time?

The table below shows some of the events during the history of the 100 metre sprint which have influenced performances (for better and worse). Some of these changes can be seen in the historical record. After 1976, fully automatic timing was introduced and average performance worsened. With a machine taking care of timing, results were no longer subject to the foibles of human behaviour. Also, human timing officials were taught to anticipate the finish  of the race — leading to a bias for shorter times.

Silent guns were introduced to eliminate the advantage given to runners in lanes closest to the infield. By moving the crack-noise to a speaker in the athlete’s starting blocks each runner receives that start signal at the same time.

Starting blocks with speaker
Starting blocks with a speaker used for starting. By Clément Bucco-Lechat (Own work) , via Wikimedia Commons
Year Event
1948 Starting blocks used by all competitors at the Olympic games
1968 Artificial ‘tartan’ track used at the Olympic games
1976 Fully automatic timing made compulsory in major competitions
1990 Instrumented Starting Blocks used
1995 Silent guns introduced at the World Championships for sprints


The Olympics in Mexico city were notorious for the number of world records which fell. The table below gives a snapshot of the shorter running events at the Olympics and whether a world (W) or Olympic (O) record was broken.

The artificial track used in Mexico allowed the runner to retain more of their energy from stride to stride increasing the probability of a world’s fastest time being achieved.

Event Men Women
100 metres W W
200 metres W W
400 metres W
800 metres W O
110/80 metres hurdles O O
4×100 metres W W

There are a wealth of stories behind this data which you can find by exploring. Please comment below with some of the stories you find!


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About wiredchop

Simon Choppin Simon’s sports engineering career began at the age of six when he loosened the wheels of his skateboard in order to make it go faster. While the experiment was chalked up as his first failure, his resulting dimpled skull has provided an aerodynamic advantage in more recent sporting pursuits. Academically, Simon completed a degree in Mechanical Engineering with Mathematics at Nottingham University before joining the Sports Engineering Research Group at Sheffield to start his PhD. His main interests include work with high speed video, mathematical modelling of various sorts and experimental work involving machines with big buttons. As a sportsman, Simon has an unfortunate lack of talent for anything requiring skill, tactical awareness or the ability to learn from mistakes. He does however seem to posess the ability to move his legs around for a long time until other people get tired, for this reason you’re most likely to see him on a bike of some sort or running up a hill in offensively small shorts. Simon was fortunate enough to have a stint at the Guardian newspaper as part of the BSA’s media fellowship, which gave him the idea for this blog. Other than this, his writing experience includes his PhD thesis and various postcards to his Mum.

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