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Every year, athletes keep going higher, farther and faster, shattering previous world records and setting new ones. But are today’s record holders really better than those of the past? Or do modern athletes get their edge from their high tech gear? Top sports scientist Steve Haake sets off on a journey to investigate.

Andre De Grasse vs Jesse Owens

Steve meets young Canadian sprinting sensation Andre De Grasse, and learns of his meteoric rise from high school track star to a contender for world’s fastest man. Andre is accustomed to sprinting the 100 metres in high tech shoes on a high tech track.  But for this Equalizer challenge he runs 100 metres in the competitive conditions of the legendary Jesse Owens. A shoemaker recreates the leather shoes that Jesse Owens wore at the 1936 Olympics. A track is found that matches a 1930s era dirt and cinder running surface.  In practice sprints Andre thinks the old shoes are great but the old track doesn’t have the same bounce as a modern one. Running beside a virtual avatar of Jesse Owens, Andre sprints a hundred meters in Jesse’s shoes. Who wins?

Sarah Hammer vs Beryl Burton
bike on olympic trackSarah Hammer on track

Moving to a sport where technology is an even bigger factor, Steve meets world champion track cyclist Sarah Hammer at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Sarah holds the current world record in the 3000 metre individual pursuit. Her training and bike are state of the art, and her skin-tight suit defeats air resistance. Steve challenges Sarah to compete on a level playing field against 1960s British track legend Beryl Burton. A bicycle maker who once competed against Beryl builds a replica of her 1960s era bike.  Compared to her new stiff carbon fiber bike, Sarah finds the steel vintage one a pleasure to ride but much less responsive. Racing against a virtual avatar of Beryl Burton, Sarah Hammer gets off to a fast start but (based on statistics) Beryl Burton slowly catches up. Who wins?

WEB EXTRA: See how Olympic-quality racing bikes from the 60's compare to those that athletes use today.
Paul Biedermann vs Mark Spitz

So far, in cycling and sprinting, we’ve seen how modern technology enhances performance. But what happens when technology goes too far? To find out, Steve goes to Germany to meet champion swimmer Paul Biedermann. Paul set the world record in the 200 metre freestyle but his achievement has been disputed by those who think the record should really go to his revolutionary high tech full body suit: the X-Glide. The X-Glide covers a swimmer’s body in slippery polyurethane. Steve challenges Paul to beat the 200 metre freestyle record set in 1972 by the legendary Olympian Mark Spitz. To level the playing field, Paul will swim in a 1970s era pool wearing a recreation of Mark Spitz’s Speedo – a suit of normal fabric that covers very little of the body.  Paul dives in alongside a 3D avatar of Mark Spitz.  Spitz is out in front at the start but Biedermann slowly catches up. In the final 50 metres they’re neck and neck. And the winner by less than a second is…?

WEB EXTRA: A test reveals that the X-Glide suit glides over 4 metres further in the water.
Christina Obergföll vs Fatima Whitbread
on track field with JavelinChristina Obergföll with Steve Haake

In the events we’ve seen so far – as in nearly all sports – world records keep improving over time.  The one exception is the javelin.  Steve appears on a field where javelins are set into the ground a few metres apart, representing the distances of world record throws.  He tells us that the best javelin throwers of the 1980s threw further than any javelin thrower today.  Why?  In the 1980s throwers became so good that their throws threatened to overshoot the field, endangering the crowds.  The sport’s rules committee ordered that javelins be redesigned to have a different center of gravity – one that would make them fly less far.  That means that in terms of world records, there’s no way to compare older javelin throwers with those of today.  Steve meets a world champion from Germany, Christina Obergföll.  She has always wanted to know if she could have beaten 1980s world record holder Fatima Whitbread.  Christina’s personal best (with a new javelin) is several metres shy of Fatima’s record.  How would Christina have done with the longer-flying pre-rules-change javelin?  To find out, Steve asks Christina to do multiple throws with old and new javelins, to reveal whether Christina would have beaten Fatima on a level playing field. 

Adam van Koeverden vs Gert Fredriksson
crew restores a vintage kayakThe team restores a vintage kayak

In the first four Equalizer challenges, modern athletes have competed against virtual avatars – seen by the viewing audience but not by the athletes themselves.  It’s hard to compete if you can’t see who you’re competing against.  The final Equalizer Challenge will add the missing element.  Steve meets world champion Canadian kayaker Adam van Koeverden, who has the world’s fastest time in the 500 metre sprint. 

Steve challenges Adam to race against legendary Swede Gert Fredriksson, who set a world record in the same event in 1948.  Adam’s time is 41% faster than Gert’s thanks to some combination of training and equipment.  Adam demonstrates his high tech training including a GPS equipped kayak that sends real-time readouts of his vital signs to his coaches and his modern kayak, a carbon fiber product of computer aided design, engineered to minimize drag.  To level the playing field, the curator of a canoe and kayak museum recreates an exact replica of Gert Fredriksson’s wood veneer kayak and provides a 1940s era wooden paddle. 

SCENE FROM THE FILM: Comparing the sleek carbon fibre boat with an old canvas-topped Olympic kayak from decades ago.

When Adam tries out the old-school gear he discovers that it requires a completely different paddling technique.  After a short orientation he prepares to race.  This time, instead of an unseen avatar, a man on a recumbent bicycle has been tasked to ride parallel to the water course at Gert Fredriksson’s record setting speed. The starting claxon sounds and they’re off.  At first both set a similar pace.  But one pulls out in front and continues to increase his lead right to the finish line.

The Equalizer challenges all reveal something about the impact of technology on performance as well as something deeper about the athletes who chose to take part. They commit, they play and they show their feelings. These champions seem at once capable of superhuman feats while remaining very human.  That’s what makes a champion an inspiration.

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