Interactive: Athletics world record progression

The IAAF athletics world championships just came to an end with the one and only world record set by Jamaica in the short relay. This (the lack of world records) comes as no surprise. It is getting harder and harder to beat the old records, as the graph below shows.

Number of new world records per year.

More than 2 000 official IAAF world records have been set since the beginning of the 20th century. In other words:  a very interesting set of data. Inspired by this visualization by The New York Times from 2008 I decided to do my own mashup with this data. This is the result (click to open in new window):

Interactive visualization: click to open in new window.

The data

There were two challenges with this visualization: getting the data and visualizing it. It was surprisingly difficult to find world record data in an accessible format. Wikipedia provides some help, but the data contains plenty of holes. Instead I had to turn to the only thing the IAAF has to offer: a 700 page pdf with all the athletics statistics you can think of. The open data gospel has apparently not reached IAAF quite yet.

On the other hand this was an opportunity to practice some Excel formatting skills. To copy-paste the data into Excel was easy, transforming into readable columns and rows took some time. But I did it and you’ll find the result in Google Docs. I didn’t figure out how to make Google Docs format seconds, tenths and hundredths correctly, but if you open the spreadsheet in Excel you should be able to get the correct times.

With the data in a pretty spreadsheet I indexed all the results with 1951 as a base year (or the first recorded record for new events) and manually added the newest records, such as the one set by the Jamaican relay team.

The visualization

For the first time I used the JavaScript library d3.js for a visualization. With my short Protovis background d3.js was a charm to work with. The main advantages with d3.js compared to Protovis are that d3.js provides much greater animation support and makes it easier to interact with other elements on the page (such as div-tags).

As a d3-n00b I used Jan Willem Tulps tutorial as a base script and built around that. The d3.js documentation is still not conclusive, so for a beginner it takes some trial and error to progress, but undoubtedly this is a very powerful library for making handmade interactive visualizations.

All in all a very educative process and a result that I’m quite content with.

Post scriptum

Do you, by the way, know which the sixth greatest athletics nation of all time is (measured in number of world records)? FINLAND! A bit hard to believe a year like this when non of our athletes made the top-eight.

Country Number of records
USA 367
Soviet union 199
East Germany 109
Great Britain 55
Germany 51
Finland 49
Poland 47
Australia 41
West Germany 39
Russia 36
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