When you look at sporting achievements over the last decades, it seems like humans have gotten faster, better and stronger in nearly every way. Yet as David Epstein points out in this delightfully counter-intuitive talk, we might want to lay off the self-congratulation. Many factors are at play in shattering athletic records, and the development of our natural talents is just one of them.



  • conceive – to form a notion or idea of; imagine
  • inexorable – impossible to stop or prevent
  • propel  – drive or push something forwards
  • trowel  – a small handheld tool with a curved scoop for lifting plants or earth
  • stride – a long, decisive step
  • savvy  – shrewd and knowledgeable about the realities of life
  • bold – (of a person, action, or idea) showing a willingness to take risks; confident and courageous)


Think about it

Answer the questions below.

  • What was the differences between Jesse Owens’ and Usain Bolt’s running conditions? (pause @ 2:56)
  • How did Sir Roger Bannister get prepared for his record breaking run? (pause @ 4:20)
  • What three cliffs does David Epstain mention? (pause @ 5:04)
  • How has the idea of average body type changed over the years? (pause @ 7:57)
  • What does David Epstain mean by saying that “the weird got weirder?” (pause @ 10:36)
  • Who are the Kalenjin? (pause @ 11:55)
  • How has the athletes’ mindset changed over time?  (stop at the end)


Practice makes perfect

Fill in the blank spaces with the correct forms of the words in brackets.

In 1936, Jesse Owens ________ (hold) the world record in the 100 meters. [If] Jesse Owens ________ (race) last year in the world championships of the 100 meters, when Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt finished, Owens ________ (still have) 14 feet to go. That’s a lot in sprinter land. To give you a sense of how much it is, I want to share with you a demonstration ________ (conceive) by sports scientist Ross Tucker. Now picture the stadium last year at the world championships of the 100 meters: thousands of fans waiting with baited breath to see Usain Bolt, the fastest man in history; flashbulbs popping as the nine fastest men in the world coil themselves into their blocks. And I want you to pretend that Jesse Owens is in that race. Now close your eyes for a second and picture the race. Bang! The gun goes off. An American sprinter ________ (jump out) to the front. Usain Bolt ________ (start) to catch him. Usain Bolt ________ (pass) him, and as the runners come to the finish, you ________ (hear) a beep as each man ________ (cross) the line. (Beeps) That’s the entire finish of the race. 

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