Just how much faster can an athlete run the hundred metres? The current world record, which belongs to Usain Bolt, stands at 9.69 seconds. Two econometrists from Tilburg University in the Netherlands, Professor of Statistics John Einmahl and former student Sander Smeets, have calculated the ultimate records possible for the 100-metre sprint.
There is room for improvement in both the men's and women's times in the near future. Their article "Ultimate 100m world records through extreme-value theory" explains how they applied the extreme-value theory.
In order to work out by how much the current records for the 100m could be improved, Einmahl and Smeets analysed the best personal records of 762 male and 479 female athletes. Each athlete was listed once, and the times were recorded between January 1991 and June 2008. Times run before 1991 were discounted on account of the inadequate doping controls before this date. The men’s times varied between 9.72 and 10.30 seconds, and the women's from 10.65 to 11.38.
According to Smeets and Einmahl, the fastest time that the men are capable of sprinting is 9.51 seconds, which knocks 0.18 seconds off Usain Bolt's current world record. For the female 100m sprinters, another 0.16 seconds can be knocked off the 10.49 run by Florence Griffith-Joyner, which would mean a time of 10.33. In a more cautious estimate (95% confidence), the predicted times are 9.21 for the men and 9.88 for the women.
Extreme-value theory is a sub-sector of statistics, which tries to answer questions about extreme events (which by definition are uncommon), using information about less extreme events. The theory is normally applied within the financial and insurance world to estimate the risk of extreme damage resulting from storms, earthquakes or the bursting of a dyke, for example, in order to calculate premiums.
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