UT Study Compares Past, Present Athletes

KNOXVILLE — A University of Tennessee study might help scientists and sports fans decide which athletes are truly the best of all time.

Dr. David Bassett, a UT exercise scientist, and Dr. Chester Kyle, professor emeritus at California State-Long Beach, have created a mathematical model to predict power required for record performances of bicycle racers since 1967.

The model accounts for variables such as altitude, track surface, equipment, clothing, height and weight.

“Theoretically, what we are trying to do is predict who would have won if these cyclists all rode on the same track with the same equipment,” Bassett said. “With all factors equal, some could have produced more power than others who had faster speeds.

Bassett compared the “Hour Record,” which is the distance cyclists travel in an hour. The record is the international standard for cycling performance and has been broken 13 times since 1967.

England’s Chris Boardman set the current mark in 1996, traveling 56.4 kilometers in one hour. But under Bassett and Kyle’s model to compare the cyclists under equal conditions, Boardman ranked second, producing 442 watts of power.

Swiss cyclist Tony Rominger, whose 55.3-km ride in 1994 is regarded as second best ever, would finish first under the model with 460 watts of power.

Belgian Eddy Merckx’s 49.4-km ride in 1972 went from 11th place to third because of the outdoor conditions he rode in and relatively simple bicycle technology he used. Merckx produced an estimated 429 watts under Bassett’s and Kyle’s measure.

Sports Illustrated and ESPN have raised interest in comparing sports performers from different eras with recent countdowns of the century’s best athletes.

Bassett said such comparisons are difficult because equipment, training and other factors have changed over the years, but his study could lead to better ways to compare athletes from different eras.

“This study has a direct bearing on that type of question,” Bassett said. “But determining which athletes had the best physiological capacity to perform is a bit of a guessing game. No one will ever really know for sure.”

Bassett and Kyle worked with scientists from the U.S. Olympic Training Center and the University of Colorado, both in Colorado Springs, and University Medical School in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Study results are published in the November issue of “Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.”