Decades ago, particularly in Europe, local club sports teams supported a large number of regionally competitive, or even semiprofessional, athletes who often made up humanity’s elite performers. Until technology tilted the landscape.
Today, literally billions of customers have a ticket to the Olympics, the World Cup, or the Super Bowl with the flick of a remote control. As a result, most sports enthusiasts are now spectators to the elite as opposed to participants in the comparatively quotidian, a huge population of recliner-bound quarterbacks paying to watch a tiny number of real QBs.
That scenario creates what economist Robert H. Frank termed a “winner-take-all” market. As the customer base for viewing extraordinary athletic performances expanded, fame and financial rewards slanted toward the slim upper echelon of the performance pyramid. As those rewards have increased and become concentrated at the top level, the performers who win them have gotten faster, stronger, and more skilled.
A group of sports psychologists, particularly acolytes of the strict 10,000- hour’s school, have argued that improvements in individual sport world records and team sport skill levels have increased so vastly in the last century—faster than evolution could have significantly altered the gene pool—that the improvement must come down solely to increasing amounts of practice. As the rewards for top performers have grown, more athletes have undertaken greater quantities of practice in an attempt to earn them.
A portion of the improvements, though, even in straightforward athletic endeavors, are very clearly the result of technological enhancements. Biomechanical video analysis of legendary sprinter Jesse Owens, for example, has shown that his joints moved as fast in the 1930s as those of Carl Lewis in the 1980s, except Owens ran on cinder tracks that stole far more energy than the synthetic surfaces where Lewis set his records.