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Usain Bolt Is No Takeru Kobayashi

DESCRIPTIONPhoto: laverrue

I blogged last week about how progress in lowering the world record in the 100-meter dash has been extremely slow, even with the improvements in track surfaces, training techniques, steroids, etc. The world record has been lowered at an average of 0.1 percent per year over the last 40 years.
Compare that kind of progress with the revolution that Takeru Kobayashi started in competitive eating. The Nathan’s 4th of July hot dog eating contest is said to have started in 1916 with the winner eating 13 hot dogs that year. By 1978 the record was only up to 17 hot dogs, according to Wikipedia. That rate of progress is not so different than what has been observed in sprinting. By 2000, the record had been stretched to an incredible 25 hot dogs.
In 2001, Kobayashi shows up and eats 50 hot dogs! He doubles the world record. He reigns supreme for six years before Joey Chestnut shows up, and he and Kobayashi both shatter the record with 66 and 63 hot dogs respectively. In this year’s event, Chestnut somehow manages to down 68 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes.
What is so interesting about this competitive eating example is that, like running, humans have been eating forever. There is no particular reason why people should suddenly be getting so much better at it. A reasonable person might have argued 20 years ago that eating 20 hot dogs in 10 minutes was bumping up against human limitations of stomach size. There was little or no room for improvement. And yet these guys are able to quadruple the world record that stood in 1978. Truly amazing.
Competitive eating was the activity I had in mind when I posed the quiz. As usual, it didn’t take long for a blog reader to get the answer; just a few minutes after the post went up, a reader named Josh wrote “eating hot dogs really fast” to be the first-prize winner.
I also said I would give a prize to the best answer other than competitive eating. There were many great examples given, ranging from mountain climbing to female marathon running to racial integration of the work force to domino tumbling.
But the activity that most captured my awe is something I had never even heard of called “piphilology.” Believe it or not, the point of this activity is to memorize and recite the digits of pi. Before reading further, stop for a moment and take a guess at how many digits of pi people have been able to memorize.
Remarkably, the world record in 1973 stood at 930 digits, according to a page devoted to this activity.
But that was mere child’s play. By 1977, the record was up to 5,050. By 1980, it was 20,013. By 1987, it was 40,000. The current world record is 67,890. It took the gentleman from China over 24 hours to recite those 67,000+ digits.
Now a Ukranian doctor claims to know the first 30 million digits, although he has not yet had the chance to recite them in order. If he went at the pace of recitation that the current record holder used, it would take the doctor over a year to get to the end. It is said, however, that when asked for specific digits he could deliver them.
I’m grateful to blog reader John C. for mentioning this fascinating example. He also wins Freakonomics swag, although perhaps he deserves punishment instead of accolades. I had been feeling pretty good about myself for finally having learned my 16-digit credit card number after roughly a decade of trying (my wife, tellingly, had learned the number many years earlier).