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iacas

Athletes in Every Sport are Better

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http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/can-you-solve-a-rubiks-cube-in-less-than-five-seconds/

I love when people hold onto the idea that the players of the 50s or 70s or whatever were the best players, when in EVERY other "sport" - including the "sport" of solving Rubik's Cubes - players continually get better and better.

This doesn't apply to the absolute top guys. For all we know, Hogan WAS the best ball-striker of all time.

But the guys a layer down… they're better now than they were then. And in the future, they'll be better then, than now. The pace of this improvement slows, but it never really hits zero. (It can reverse, and players can get worse, but that's only likely to happen if the sport sees a major shrinkage. Today's bowlers may not be as good as the bowlers of the PBA's heyday, for example.)

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54 minutes ago, iacas said:

This doesn't apply to the absolute top guys. For all we know, Hogan WAS the best ball-striker of all time.

But the guys a layer down… they're better now than they were then. And in the future, they'll be better then, than now. The pace of this improvement slows, but it never really hits zero. (It can reverse, and players can get worse, but that's only likely to happen if the sport sees a major shrinkage. Today's bowlers may not be as good as the bowlers of the PBA's heyday, for example.)

I agree, but I think the reason this is an often debated topic is because it can be difficult to define what is "better". Assuming we can agree on what defines a "sport", I propose that we put sports into one of two categories.

-Less changing: Running a 100m dash for example, is something that does not change much. Sure, sneakers may be better, but the 100m dash 50 years ago is very similar to the one today. Many Olympic sports like swimming fall into this category. Arguably, sports like basketball fall into here.

-More changing: Sports that have big rule changes over time, or in which results are strongly affected by equipment changes. I would say that golf, skiing, and a number of other sports fall into this category.

Obviously, there are many gray areas between these categories, but I think the discussion of what "better" means is a lot simpler for "less changing" sports than "more changing" sports. For instance, it's harder to argue that Jesse Owens was a better sprinter than Usain Bolt than it is to argue that Jack Nicklaus was a better golfer than Tiger Woods.

The same goes for debating on whether athletes are always "getting better" at a particular sport. It's clear that sprinters will always improve a bit (although as you mentioned, the improvement has slowed down). But debating on whether golfers are always improving becomes more reliant on a difficult-to-agree-upon definition of better.

Edited by chspeed

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11 minutes ago, chspeed said:

Obviously, there are many gray areas between these categories, but I think the discussion of what "better" means is a lot simpler for "less changing" sports than "more changing" sports. For instance, it's harder to argue that Jesse Owens was a better sprinter than Usain Bolt than it is to argue that Jack Nicklaus was a better golfer than Tiger Woods.

As I said in the OP, it's not about comparing one or two guys at the very thin tail. It's about the top 100 or so.

 

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1 hour ago, iacas said:

http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/can-you-solve-a-rubiks-cube-in-less-than-five-seconds/

I love when people hold onto the idea that the players of the 50s or 70s or whatever were the best players, when in EVERY other "sport" - including the "sport" of solving Rubik's Cubes - players continually get better and better.

This doesn't apply to the absolute top guys. For all we know, Hogan WAS the best ball-striker of all time.

But the guys a layer down… they're better now than they were then. And in the future, they'll be better then, than now. The pace of this improvement slows, but it never really hits zero. (It can reverse, and players can get worse, but that's only likely to happen if the sport sees a major shrinkage. Today's bowlers may not be as good as the bowlers of the PBA's heyday, for example.)

I think there's something about golf where more than a few in the game mythologize the past. Maybe its traditionalism. That it has existed longer, in a organized fashion, than other sports?

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10 minutes ago, iacas said:

As I said in the OP, it's not about comparing one or two guys at the very thin tail. It's about the top 100 or so.

 

OK, I have no problem with that. I don't think that changes what I was saying. Namely, that it's easier to argue with your assertion than it would be if you had replaced PGA Tour Players with today's Olympic swimmers. With your assertion, I could argue that those 50 years ago were better because their scoring averages were similar, yet they played with inferior balls and clubs on poorly maintained courses. In the latter assertion (with Olympic swimmmers), it would be much harder to come up with an argument as to why Olympic swimmers were "better" 50 years ago.

And for the record, I agree that PGA players are better and stronger, I was just trying to explain why this is an oft-contested topic.

 

4 minutes ago, nevets88 said:

I think there's something about golf where more than a few in the game mythologize the past. 

Definitely - happens with everything. Like when I walked to school uphill both ways when I was a kid.

 

Edited by chspeed

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All you can do in fairness is judge an athlete vs his contemporaries. In the 60's many pro athletes had to have off season jobs to get by. Richie Heber was a grave digger....  Today they all work on their craft year round.

Though Bill Russell is still the NBA GOAT....

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2 hours ago, chspeed said:

OK, I have no problem with that. I don't think that changes what I was saying. Namely, that it's easier to argue with your assertion than it would be if you had replaced PGA Tour Players with today's Olympic swimmers. With your assertion, I could argue that those 50 years ago were better because their scoring averages were similar, yet they played with inferior balls and clubs on poorly maintained courses. In the latter assertion (with Olympic swimmmers), it would be much harder to come up with an argument as to why Olympic swimmers were "better" 50 years ago.

I get what you're saying - that the changes to equipment can toy with the perception - but there's no doubt in my mind that if you took 120 players from now back in time to 1940 or so, gave them six months to get used to the old equipment (they might not need that long), and set them against the 120 players from back then, they'd consistently wipe the floor with them.

Because they're just that much better now.

Ben Hogan might still be really good, but even his win totals would shrink because occasionally his A- game would not beat out a modern player's A game.

1 hour ago, Papa Steve 55 said:

All you can do in fairness is judge an athlete vs his contemporaries. In the 60's many pro athletes had to have off season jobs to get by. Richie Heber was a grave digger....  Today they all work on their craft year round.

Though Bill Russell is still the NBA GOAT....

Maybe. Or is it Jordan? LeBron fans could make a very strong case for him. He's putting up good numbers while playing against much better competition.

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11 hours ago, iacas said:

 

Maybe. Or is it Jordan? LeBron fans could make a very strong case for him. He's putting up good numbers while playing against much better competition.

I think that pretty much sums it up. Its a personal opinion to who was better or what era was better. Sure thanks to modern day technology, fitness levels and better understanding on getting the most from the human body, todays athletes are leaps and bounds ahead of those from past decades but does it mean they are better?

Two exmples for me as a motorsport fan are:

Senna v Schumacher. Senna wins hands down, sure Schumacher won more races and titles but his fitness was so much better (senna colapsed after a races on occasion) but Schumacher had better tech (semi auto gearbox) better pit crew.

Sebastian Loeb v Juha Kankunnen - The Finn wins hands down for similar reasons as above. Loeb was mega fit (Kankunnen was a heavy smoker), had better tech and less demanding rallies. Kankunnen is the only person to win titles with 3 different manufacturers. Legend!

As athletes, Schumacher and Loeb were at the pinnacle of their sport, but as sportsmen  they were behind their predecessors in my opinion.

Edited by RussUK

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I don't know if it still exists, but it was amusing to watch some of the old stuff on ESPN Classic when that was available locally. Even watching my favorites (hockey and football) from the 70s, they look like almost different sports.

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4 hours ago, RussUK said:

I think that pretty much sums it up.

No it doesn’t. The main point is not about the outliers. It’s about the average.

16 minutes ago, mcanadiens said:

I don't know if it still exists, but it was amusing to watch some of the old stuff on ESPN Classic when that was available locally. Even watching my favorites (hockey and football) from the 70s, they look like almost different sports.

That’s a better summary than Schumacher or Jordan. And a good way of saying it.

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Yea, the answer to this age old question has always been obvious to me: that they're bigger, stronger, faster in all the sports now. And like I said, to me it's obvious. 

Bill Russell however I think would be Draymond Green Plus in today's era. He was special. He was one of those guys from the 60s that could've excelled in any era IMO. Jordan's the GOAT tho for me. 

I think it's mostly blowhards like Lee Trevino and Gary Player who feed the myth that the past was better, mostly out of ego and a total lack of introspection. Everything those guys say is taken as gospel by a lot of people.* 

But yea, IMO, if you took, say, Charlie Hoffman and implanted him in 1940, he'd have like 50 wins and 10 majors. 

* I'm not entirely sure Player and Trevino have directly said the past was better. I do know they have blowhardy tendencies, but I was mostly using them as an example. For all I know, they've said somewhere this era is off-the-charts good, talent wise. 


Edit:

One thing I wanted to add was that IMO golf is experiencing this now more than any other sport. Basketball for example is a pretty darn accessible game. You don't need much to get started. Golf though, you need clubs. You need an adult to start you young and pay for your greens fees. Golf is harder to break into than really any other main stream game IMO. So the talent pool was even more closed off fifty years ago than a game like basketball ever was. 

Certainly poor people played golf back in the day (Francis Ouimet for example), but generally, you weren't playing much golf if you weren't incredibly lucky. Hell, even today, you're not playing much golf if you aren't incredibly lucky....

Edited by JetFan1983

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Tennis is an interesting one.  New racquets are much lighter and more powerful and the string technology has advanced greatly creating more spin.

They slowed down the grass courts!   So now the serve and volley style is dead.

Its moved to a power baseline game.  Even at Wimbledon!  The game is much more one dimensional now.  Boring.

Whether it’s better now or not a dimension of the game has been lost due to tech.

I think golf is similar because working the ball is largely a thing of the past.  That said if Tigers healthy I’m watching.

Edited by Jack Watson

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I think today's athletes are better conditioned than in years past.   The training techniques and understanding of nutrition are much better than in the past.    

If you take the advance in equipment out of the equation, which has advanced significantly, the sports where it's just athlete against athlete, today's athletes are much better than in years past.  

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3 hours ago, Jack Watson said:

Whether it’s better now or not a dimension of the game has been lost due to tech.

The athletes are better now.

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Gretzky is on board that the athletes are better, although I should warn everyone, I'm clueless when it comes to hockey (and tennis for that matter): 

 

 I feel like the NBA arguably had a talent regression for a a few years post Jordan, but I could be wrong on that. Otherwise, it's been similar to other sports, where the worst players on each team have gotten a lot better. I still think the largest talent improvement has been golf though, most recently. 

So if someone comes along in fifty years and wins 60 times with 12 majors, then I should probably have the opinion they are better than Tiger. 

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Here’s 100 dash progression.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Men's_100_metres_world_record_progression

Athletes are progressing but not by huge amounts.  Genetics are what they are they don’t change much in a generation or two.

Yes,  they are a bit faster stronger.  Golf is a game that’s not dependent on the limits of strength but rather on skill.  

Equipment is responsible for the majority of the distance gains we see.

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5 hours ago, Jack Watson said:

Equipment is responsible for the majority of the distance gains we see.

I’m not talking about distance only.

Golfers are way better now than even two generations ago. Even if you only went by number of participants that’s obvious.

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I remember in the the Gary McCord video about Hogan he quoted Hogan as saying you guys are way better than we were and that video was what, in the 90s?

Quote

Hogan: You guys are so much better than we were it's frightening.

 

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