Are Athletes Great for Longer?

Tom Brady just won the superbowl again.

Previously, you could have attributed his streak to the Patriots as a team. But then he left for the Buccaneers, which had not won a superbowl since 2002, and immediately won again. He pulled Rob Gronkowski out of retirement who had previously been with him on the Patriots, so maybe it’s the two of them together, but still.

It’s even more insane when you remember that Tom Brady’s first Super Bowl win was in 2002. Was he some rookie back then, nominally on the team but not really contributing to the victory? Not at all, as in 2021, he was named MVP.

That makes for a 19 year rein, spanning 10 Super Bowl appearances, 7 wins, and 5 MVP awards.

It’s not just football. In other sports, we have:

  • Roger Federer: First won Wimbledon in 2003, last won in 2017, and still ranked #5 in the world in 2021.
  • Serena Williams: First won Wimbledon in 2002, last won in 2016, currently #11.
  • Magnus Carlsen: First ranked #1 in 2010, still ranked #1 in 2021.
  • Tiger Woods: First won Masters in 1997, last won in 2019. Ranked #1 for 683 weeks.

Is this weird? It should be. It’s not just that a 43 year old man is the best athlete in a full-contact sport, it’s that athletes are getting much better across the board, but still can’t supplant last decade’s champions.

Consider the progression in men’s marathon times:

Even more dramatic, here’s the progression in men’s 100 meter times:

It makes sense that humanity is getting better at sports. Presumably, we’re improving at sports nutrition, medicine, and coaching, but also just have more humans and better talent selection. Over time, each generation should be better than the last.

So why can’t anyone beat Tom Brady?

Maybe he really is just uniquely good, but you couldn’t say the same of Federer in tennis. Rafael Nadal has also been among the world’s best from 2005 (first French Open win) until today (ranked #2, won the French Open again in 2020). Djokovic, currently ranked #1, first achieved the ranking in 2011, and first won a major Open (the Australian) in 2008.

First, it’s worth asking if this is actually a recent phenomenon. Taking a look at the list of Wimbledon champions, Federer is #1 of all time with victories spanning 14 years. William Renshaw is in second with victories spanning just 8 years, followed by Pete Sampras with victories spanning 7 years. After that, it’s Djokovic again across 8 years.

The crazy thing is, it seems entirely possible that Federer could keep winning. He made it to the Wimbledon finals in 2019 where he had a close game (the longest final singles match ever) against Djokovic, and was playing well in 2020 until stepping back to recover from an injury.

What about women’s tennis? Here’s the list of Wimbledon champions. Serena Williams does not have the most wins ever, but her victories span 14 years. In contrast, the top players are Martina Navratilova (12 years), Helen Wills Moody (11 years), Dorothea Lambert Chambers (11 years), Steffi Graf (8 years). There’s one exception, Blanche Bingley won from 1886 to 1900. Not to take away from her accomplishments, but since the championship had just begun in 1884, it’s fair to assume there just wasn’t as much competition. At the very least, Williams is unmatched in modern history.

Is the continued dominance of Brady, Williams and Federer proof that we’re living in the greatest era of history, or a sign that we’re no longer improving?

In football, other players don’t even come close. Brady has MVPs spanning 19 years, compared to 8 for Joe Montana, and 4 for Eli Manning. But the award is a bit arbitrary, and not an objective measure of individual achievement.

In golf, Tiger Woods’ Masters Tournament victories span 22 years, compared to 23 for Jack Nicklaus. No other player comes close.

Finally, here’s the timeline of #1 ranked players in chess:

Carlsen’s 10 year streak is impressive, but doesn’t quite match Kasparov’s 21 years. Still, Carlsen has time. Kasparov was 43 when his reign ended and Carlsen is just 30 today

But still, the fact that any of this is happening at all is strange to me, given how much better humans have gotten at running. Maybe the advances in sports medicine lengthen athlete’s careers more than they help new players excel.

Or maybe it’s all just selection bias since I only looked at the athletes that came to mind.

In conclusion: In men tennis and football, current players have unmatched longevity, winning the top award over longer time spans than their predecessors.  In women’s tennis, it’s a slim margin. In Chess, Carlsen may continue to dominate and beat Kasparov’s record. In golf, Tiger Woods is one year behind the historical longest streak, but still stands a chance of winning again. More work is needed to see if this phenomenon holds true in other athletic competitions.

Simon M says:

This is one of my favourite topics, and I enjoyed your post, there’s some more ideas which I’ve pondered for a while which you didn’t touch on:

1/ Increasing economic rewards. (You earn far more as a top professional now, so staying in an extra year, or ten is much more worthwhile)

2/ Catching the wave at the “right time”. If the tools for longevity (training methods, drugs, whatever) are a recent phenomenon and there is some advantage to incumbency, then you would expect the current crop of top players to last longer but also hold off competitors for longer so even talented ones will have a shorter window where they are top of the sport.

3/ In soccer, Messi and Ronaldo have been dominating the game for a v. long time.

These are all good points. The second presents a particularly interesting dynamic. Using the toy model:

  1. Athletes get better over time due to experience, but more and more slowly
  2. Athletes get worse over time due to again, and this accelerates

A really interesting implication of improved “tools for longevity” is that there will never be another Tom Brady. The next greatest QB might be 30 by the time he outpaces Brady. Since 43 year old Brady is so good, the next 21 year old Brady won’t have a chance to win Super Bowl MPV.

Daniel Filan mentions over email that Go players are holding the #1 spot for less and less time. There’s a pretty wild chart:

Shin Jinseo comes out of nowhere and blows everyone else away, attaining the highest rating of all time by a healthy margin. XKCD provids a similar chart for chess:

Notably, the go players are also super young.