20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Philosophy of Sport

The Record Dilemma

Sigmund Loland
The Norweigan University for Sports and Physical Education

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

ABSTRACT: This paper takes a critical look at the origins and characteristics of the concept of sporting records and examines the challenges to sport posed by the continuous quest for new records. First, sport records are defined. Second, the logic of the record is critically examined. It is argued that the continuous quest for new records represents the impossible quest for unlimited growth in (biologically) limited systems. In this way, the quest for records is seen to threaten the very core idea in competitive sport: that it deals primarily with genuine, human performances. Third, then, sport disciplines are categorized according to what is seen as their vulnerability in this respect. Disciplines in which performance depends heavily upon biologically limited basic physical qualities (speed, strength, endurance), and in which technology and tactics play a relatively minor role, are exposed to problematic consequences. Although, logically, new records can be set again and again by finer calibration of measurement technology, the moral and human costs of every improvement will probably increase.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

The founding father of the Olympic Movement, Pierre de Coubertin, referred to the sport record as having the same function in the ideology of Olympism as the principle of gravity in Newtonian mechanics (Loland 1995). The record was, so to speak, the eternal axiom of sport.

No doubt, Coubertin was right in many ways. The fascination for records is a key element in our fascination for sports. Records are the stuff of which legends and myths are made. Johnny Weissmuller's 1924 one hundred meter freestyle swim under the minute, Wilma Rudolph's fabulous sprint records from the early 1960s, and Michael Johnson's explosive two hundred meter record run at the 1996 Atlanta Games, are all paradigmatic examples of Coubertin's ideals. The record stands as a symbolic message of human greatness and infinite possibility.

However, as will be shown in this paper, the record idea is not unproblematic. First, sport records are defined. Second, based on critical, conceptual analyses, the logic of the record is examined and possible consequences are discussed of the continuous quest for new records. Finally, some reflections are presented on alternative lines of developments in sport in which the status of the record idea is drastically reduced.

Record Sports, Quasi Record Sports, and Games

A sport record is a performance, measured in exact mathematical-physical entities (meters, seconds or kilograms) within a standardized spatio-temporal framework defined by sport rules, that is better than all previous performances measured in the same way. Typical record sports are athletics, swimming, and weight lifting.

Record sports have to satisfy strict requirements on both standardization of conditions and on exact measurement of performance. A series of sport disciplines satisfy one of these two criteria. In marathon running and cross-country skiing, performances are measured and compared by exact timing, but there are no standardized arenas. The Boston Marathon is rather different from the one in Oslo. The conditions and trails of cross-country ski races vary from race to race. We sometimes talk of records here, but in an inaccurate way. Disciplines with exact performance measurements but without strictly standardized frameworks can perhaps better be called quasi-record sports.

Other sport disciplines have well-defined standardized spatial frameworks but do not measure performances in exact ways. In terms of arenas, soccer and tennis are more or less identical from match to match. Performances, however, are measured in non-precise entities like goals, points, sets, and games. Moreover, performances are in a sense relative as they depend upon social interaction with other competitors. Talk of records makes little sense. Indeed, one talks of the greatest soccer player in history, or the best and most exciting tennis match ever played. But, characteristically, such discussions are always diverse and full of opposing views, which again probably are their very entertaining raison d'être. Soccer, tennis, handball, volleyball, basketball, and the like are not record sports, but games.

In what follows, focus will be placed on the logic and dilemma of record sports. In the final discussion, the logic of record sports will be contrasted to those of quasi record sports and games.

Records - Background and Developments

Fascination for great performances and deeds are common to most cultures and in most historical settings. In Carter and Krüger's Ritual and Record (1990), a series of scholars illustrates how great athletic performances have been held as golden standards of excellence in ancient, medieval, and Renaissance cultures. In the development of modern competitive sport the last century, however, records have become more important than ever.

The record idea found its form in a particular historical, social and cultural setting in last Century's England: the land of sport (Mandell 1976, Guttmann 1978). A mathematical-empirical world-view based on the insights of modern natural science was predominant, at least among the educated classes. Classic liberalism emphasized the ideals of equal opportunity. All citizens ought to compete on equal terms in the pursuit of happiness. Industrialism was in many ways a carrier of strong ideals of quantifyable progress within standardized and rationalized frameworks.

This ethos influenced many areas of life. Common among most people was a strong belief in «the great idea of progress». Human kind entered a new era of physical, social, cultural, and moral progress. This was the time of a flourishing international peace movement, of the rise of international humanist organizations like the Red Cross, of the visionary Esperanto movement, and the international Olympic Movement (Hoberman 1995).

Within this vision, there was little room for approximate and non-precise tales of great performances. The sport record can be seen as the modern, scientific version of the traditional great deed. The British introduced new rule systems to secure equal opportunity and exact measurements of performance. Standardization of sport arenas and improvement of measurement technology enabled comparison of performances over time. According to Mandell (1976), the first official sport records were written down («recorded») during an athletic meet between the universities Cambridge and Oxford in 1868.

Around the turn of the Century, due to improved communication systems in general and to the establishment of the modern Olympic Movement in particular, competitive sport became an international phenomenon. The quest for progress and new records is perhaps most clearly articulated in the Olympic motto citius, altius, fortius. Sport became the paradigmatic example of the Zeitgeist of the time, or, as Korsgaard (1990) expresses it, the predominant ritual for the myth of progress.

Sport Records - Current Status

The development and increasing importance of the mass media in this century enforced the strong public interest taken in sports. Reports on sport became an important part of newspapers and popular magazines. The definite break through came with the electronic media, in particular TV. Today millions and in fact billions of people can watch sport events live, a possibility which previously had been the privilege of a few thousands present at the stadium.

With the possibility for pay off in terms of prestige and profit that follows from an audience worldwide, the flow of resources into sport increased. Systematic selection of talents enhanced the possibility to select the genetically best gifted. Through improved socio-economic frameworks, increased standards of living, and the development of exercise science, the potential of individual talents is utilized to an increasing degree. Technology and the quality of equipment have improved immensely. In track and field, the tartan surface and ultra light running shoes have been significant in the setting of new records, in pole vault new materials changed radically the potential for performance.

And indeed, the improvements in most sports have been formidable. Raymond T. Stefani (1994) has shown that, from 1924 and to 1984, record disciplines like athletics, swimming, and weight lifting, have had an approximate record improvement of 2,2% per Olympic Games. In other words, this sixty-year span has experienced a 30% improvement in performances.

To take an example: In 1924, the already mentioned Johnny Weissmuller, the first man to play Tarzan on film, won Olympic Gold on the hundred meter freestyle as the first swimmer ever below the minute. Recorded time was 59.0. During the Moscow Games in 1980, the Russian Vladimir Salnikov won the fifteen hundred-meter freestyle on 14.58.27. Salnikov was the first ever below fifteen minutes on the distance. In other words, he used less than a minute per hundred-meter and could have competed with fifteen swimmers of Weismuller's caliber.

Record improvements can be described exactly and understood as a complex product of historical and social forces. However, in order to work with the idea of the record in a critical and systematic way, there is need for deeper insights in its basic characteristics; its distinctive logic.

The Logic of the Sport Record

Sport's central characteristics are competition, performance, to distinguish winners and losers. The idea of the record is a clear expression of a particular social practice with its own goals and values. At the same time, the idea represents something new. The development from pre-modern ideas of great performances to the record is not just a gradual development along a scale. It is a qualitative step.

Great performances described in tales of heroic deeds from the past or through a variety of rites de passage, or initiation rites, from different cultures, all have a limit. They represent a stable standard. Consider the Masaii initiation rite in which a young boy is supposed to kill a lion to become man. When the animal is killed, an aim has been reached. The boy has become a man. Enough is enough.

Record sports, on the other hand, accept no well defined, static goal. The logic here is that any best performance, no matter how ground breaking it is, has to be challenged immediately. The day after the Norwegian runner Vebjørn Rodal won the eight hundred-meter of the 1996 Atlanta Games, the largest subscription newspaper in Norway, Aftenposten, immediately asked in its editorial when Rodal would break the 1.40 limit. What will be the next magical limit? 1.39? And then 1.38.5, 1.38, 4, 1.38, 39 et cetera. The logic of the record is this: Enough is never enough!

Logically, records can be improved infinitely. During the 18th century, seconds were split in tenths of seconds, tenths were split in hundreds, hundreds in thousands, and, as measurement technology improves, thousands will perhaps be split in millionths of seconds (Inizan 1994). It is possible to detect even microscopic improvements.

And indeed, new records are set continuously. Some scholars, among them Fredrick (1986) who have analyzed running events, portray a steady development. Graphically speaking, the rate of improvement is linear. The most optimistic, like the athletic coach Frank Dick (1997), boldly states that ideas of limits are self-imposed obstacles and products of the human mind.

Stefani's (1994) analyses challenge such points. References to an average 2,2% improvement rate over the last sixty years hide an important point. What is not said, is that the improvement curve flattens. There was a consistent improvement of results in the Olympic Games from 1965 to 1972 and a diminished improvement of results from 1976 to 1992. In fact, within the last sixteen years, the average improvement rate has decreased to 1,4%.

Stefani explains the improvements from 1952 to 1972 mainly by referring to the intense competition between the USA and the Soviet Union, and the decreased rate of improvement from 1976 to 1992 by a less «ideologized» sport, stricter doping control, and international boycotts of the Games. However, the flattening of the record curve can be understood as an expression of a more serious dilemma.

The Record Dilemma

In essence, the record dilemma is that the continuous quest for new records is built on the impossible demand for unlimited growth within limited systems.

Record sports tend to reduce the potential for progress to one narrow human capacity such as the ability to run fast, jump high or long, or throw far. As biological beings, our capacities for improving speed, explosivity and strength are limited. It is, for example, inconceivable to think of a hundred-meter sprint in, say, 5.00 seconds. Our phylogenetic potential does not change over night, and a hundred-meter sprint is still one hundred meters long. If sprinters are to become significantly faster, genetic dispositions will probably have to be changed.

The hundred-meter sprint is an extreme example. As recent world records illustrate, for instance the Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj's lowering of Morcelis' three years old fifteen hundred-meter record with 1.17 seconds to 3.26.00 (Rome, July 14, 1998), many disciplines have probably still a long way to go before approaching human biological limits. But without radical changes in the standardized frameworks for performance, the quest for records will, sooner or later, lead towards pressing dilemmas here as well.

Scientific and technological innovations provide radical new possibilities. Biochemical manipulation of athletic performance is called doping, or «artificial performance enhancement». Genetic make up is said to be responsible for between 25% and 50% of an athlete's performance. Based on his own research, Claude Bouchard (1997) has estimated that within fifteen to twenty years researchers will be able to draw a complete map of "the performance genes". Applications of radical biotechnology in sport are probably not as far away as we would like to believe. The Finnish philosopher and cultural critic Georg Henrik von Wright (1989) talks about «the technological imperative»: if a certain technology is available, and if it is efficient as means towards desired ends, it will be used no matter the costs.

The ecological crisis illustrates how the quest for unlimited material and economic growth is inconsistent with the limited resources of the earth. In high performance sports, the quest for records can lead toward a human ecological catastrophe, or a «dehumanization of sports», to use a phrase from John Hoberman (1992). The obsession with records threatens the very core idea in competitive sport: that it deals primarily with genuine, human performances. Sport becomes humanistic risk zones.

Hard and Soft Core Record Sports

There is need for some modifications here. Not all record sports are equally exposed to the record dilemma. Moreover, as the doping scandals of the 1998 Tour de France clearly illustrate, specialized quasi record sports such as professional cycling in which performance is highly dependent upon one basic physical quality, such as oxygen uptake, might be just as vulnerable as record disciplines. The important point is the discipline's status as more or less closed, or limited, systems.

In an open system, there are a series of variables that influence the outcome. Characteristically, in these systems elements or variables may come and go. There is no stable homeostatic condition (Kneer and Nassehi 1993). In open system sports, basic talent of athletes co-varies with training expertise, technical and tactical skills, and the use and development of technology and equipment. And, in ball games, performance is always relative to the technical and tactical moves of the opponent(s).

In a limited system, most variables have a defined maximum value, or an end state. Limited systems are stable and more or less closed to external influences and new elements (Kneer and Nassehi 1993). In limited system sports, the key variables underlying performance are basic physical qualities like speed, strength, and endurance. Such qualities are linked more closely to genetic talent and have certain biological limits that are hard to transcend.

The thesis, then, is that the greater importance of basic physical qualities in a given record sport, and the lesser importance of technical and tactical skills, and of technology, the more vulnerable the given sport becomes to negative consequences of the record dilemma.


In sport disciplines like the hundred-meter sprint and long jumping, performance depends to a large extent on development of genetically given talent in terms of strength and speed. As Sir Roger Bannister (1997) puts it: "The faculty [of speed] is inborn". Indeed, to learn sport technique, that is, to learn a specific series of movement elements to solve movement tasks in sport situations (Martin 1991) is important to a certain extent. At the same time, running belongs to basic movement skills and efficient running style is closely related to genetic dispositions. Historically, the development of movement technique in sprint and long jumping support this thesis. Apart from the starting position in sprint, there has been little technical development. Within this perspective, these disciplines appear as rather closed systems.

In record sports like swimming and javelin throwing, technical developments are significant and the learning and systematic development of technique is of great importance. New and finer calibration and scales for records can be developed as new technical solutions are introduced. Even it these disciplines are exposed to negative consequences of the record dilemma as well, they have the characteristics of more open systems.


Good tactics is generally understood as choice of the most efficient means within the rules for successful performance in competition (Martin 1991). In record sports, the point is to run and swim as fast, throw and jump as far, and lift as much as possible. Individual preparation and social interaction before a competition can be considered tactical dispositions. However, within the competition, each competitor has to distribute his or her resources in the best way possible. In this sense, the hundred-meter sprint in swimming and athletics poses less challenge on tactical dispositions - the point is full speed towards the finishing line - than do the fifteen hundred-meter and ten thousand-meter respectively. Common to these disciplines, however, if practiced like true record sports, is that the main tactical concern is towards oneself and towards distributing one's own resources optimally. In terms of tactics, record sports are rather primitive and appear as more or less closed systems.

Technology and Equipment

Record sports vary on the open and closed system-scale according to the role played by technology and equipment. A better grip on the bar may contribute to performance enhancement for the weight lifter. Lighter running shoes and new surfaces influence the performance of the sprinter. In swimming, bathing suits with a minimum of friction in water have a similar influence.

However, in these sport disciplines, the effects on performance of technological and equipment innovations are rather marginal. The disciplines are, from a technological point of view, very limited systems. In record sports like javelin throwing, speed skating, or rifle shooting, new technology may significantly influence the result. These disciplines are more open to changes and to new calibrations of old record schemes.

Hence, it is possible to distinguish between limited systems in terms of "hard core" record sports in which almost all emphasis is put on basic physical qualities, and more open and softer record sports in which there is more room for technological, technical and/or tactical innovations and thus for record improvements without pushing biological performance limits too hard (see figure 1).

technology technique tactics
sprint athl. x - - -
sprint swimm. x - x -
10 000 m athl. x - x -
1500 m swimm. x - x -
javelin throwing x x x -
speed skating x x x -

figure 1: Some examples on hard core and soft core record sports. Hard core record sports put emphasis on one or two of these variables, and appear as very limited systems.

Future Scenarios

By all means, record sports may be treated somewhat unfairly here. The obsession with results and winning leads to problematic consequences in all sports. However, quasi record-sports and team sports like football and handball are blessed with more open skill demands. Performances are not measured in exact mathematical-physical qualities. Skills do not to the same degree depend on basic physical qualities like endurance, strength, and speed. Pills and injections can make an athlete faster and stronger. The only way to cultivate one's talent is through social interaction with others. No biochemical substance can, however, develop ball technique or the skill of making the right tactical choices. The "hard core" record sports represent, from my point of view, a humanistic risk zone in sport and ought to be changed towards softer variants or towards games.

Is this then a prediction on the decline and destruction of sports as we know them? Not necessarily. The interest in top level sport has never been as strong as it is today. The interest however, can somehow change direction towards sports with less specialized and less standardized skill demands. There are signs of this development today. Ball games and individual sports in closeness to nature are on their way up among the masses and as high performance sports. During the 1996 Atlanta games, soccer attracted the highest number of spectators. Moreover, in Atlanta new Olympic disciplines such as mountain biking and beach volleyball were introduced. During the winter games in Nagano in 1998, snow-board was part of the program for the very first time.

Another possibility is that the disciplines most exposed to the negative effects of the record mania can find new forms. Perhaps there is some hope in the view that social systems regenerate and change under pressure. During great events, among them the Olympic Games, the norm has developed that the point is not to set records, but to cross the finishing line first. Tactical running on the ten thousand-meter is the rule rather than the exception, and indeed, they offer excitement and entertainment just as much as record attempts. To some disciplines, increased emphasis on tactics might be a way out of the record dilemma. The point is, perhaps, to turn record sports into games.

Concluding Comments

Sometimes, however, the time for change seems far away. During Grand Prix events in athletics, world records are the aim towards which every organizer strives. The paradigmatic example of a record culture out of control is the well paid "hares" that are supposed to keep up the speed for the potential record setters. I suppose I am not the only one here who hopes for the hare to succeed and win the whole race. This, in fact, happens occasionally, for instance at 1981 Bislett Grand Prix in the early 80s where Steve Ovett's "hare" Tom Byers led the fifteen hundred meter race from start to finish and won. Cheering from the crowd was overwhelming and persistent. People had taken the message: It is still possible for the individual to beat the system.

In the world of sports, classical disciplines and hard core record sports like the throw, the lift, the jump, and the run are perhaps the most beautiful and the most dramatic we have got. And, the fascination for the classic disciplines will continue. However, as record sports, they might not get the predominant role reserved for them by Pierre de Coubertin. Perhaps will the record ideal end up in a similar way as the ideal of amateurism? It has to be re-interpreted and softened in order for top level sport to proceed.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


(1) The argument exemplified in figure 1 may be criticized as building on a simplistic and reductionistic understanding in which performance is considered a result of a biological organism that can be calculated, programmed and controlled completely. Obviously, this is not the case. Sport performances are the complex results of a large number of factors working together. Biologically, psychologically, and socially, human beings are open systems indeed. The point, however, is that hard core record sports focus very strongly or one or a few of these factors. Performances are extremely specialized and excludes a variety of possible variables that could have made the system more open and thus less vulnerable.


Bannister, Roger: "Human Performance in Athletics - Scientific Aspects of Record Breaking." Paper presented at the seminar «Human Performance in Athletics - Limits and Possibilities», arranged by The International Athletic Federation, Budapest, October 11-12 1997.

Bouchard, Claude: "In Search for The Performance- related Genes". Key Note Paper, Second Annual Congress of the European College of Sport Science, August 20-23 1997, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Carter, John Marshall and Krüger, Arnd: Ritual and Record. Sport Records and Quantification in Pre-Modern Societies. Greenwood Press, New York 1990.

Dick, Frank: "No Limits!" Paper presented at the seminar «Human Performance in Athletics - Limits and Possibilities», arranged by The International Athletic Federation, Budapest, October 11-12 1997.

Fredrick, Edward C.: «In Search for the Asymptote: Projecting the Limits of Human Performance». International Journal of Sport Biomechanics, 1986, 2, pp. 1-5.

Guttmann, Allen: From Ritual to Record. The Nature of Modern Sports. Columbia UP, New York 1978.

Heinilä, Kalevi: «The Totalization Process in International Sport.» In: Sportwissenschaft 2, 1982, pp. 235-254.

Hoberman, John M.: Mortal Engines. The Science of Performance and the Dehumanization of Sports. The Free Press, New York 1992.

Inizan, Francoise: «Masters and Slaves of Time». Olympic Review, July/August 1994, pp. 306-310.

Kneer, Georg and Armin Nassehi: Niklas Luhmanns Theorie sozialer Systeme - eine Einführung. Wilhelm Fink, München 1993.

Korsgaard, Ove: «Sport as a Practice of Religion: The Record as Ritual.» in: Carter, John Marshall and Krüger, Arnd: Ritual and Record. Sport Records and Quantification in Pre-Modern Societies. Greenwood Press, New York 1990, pp. 115-122.

Loland, Sigmund: «Coubertin's Ideology of Olympism from the Perspective of the History of Ideas.» Olympika. International Journal of Olympic Studies, Vol. IV, 1995, pp. 49-78.

Mandell, Richard D: Sport - A Cultural History. Columbia UP, New York 1984.

Martin, Dietrich (red.): Handbuch Trainingslehre. Karl Hofman, Schorndorf 1991.

Stefani, Raymond T.: Athletics, Swimming, Weightlifting - Improvements in Performances. Olympic Review, November 1994, pp. 470-474.

Wright, Georg Henrik von: Vitenskapen og fornuften. Cappelen, Oslo 1991.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Back to the Top

20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Paideia logo design by Janet L. Olson.
All Rights Reserved


Back to the WCP Homepage