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Perfection Pursued 2 min read
New York Times

Perfection Pursued

Just how good can athletes get at their sport?

By Cary Littlejohn

The New York Times recently ran a great piece data journalism that tackles a question any and all sports-watcher has wondered about: How much better are the athletes of today than their predecessors (if at all)?

Studying the Limits of Human Perfection, Through Darts
Why do athletes always seem to get better, generation by generation? It’s not always for the reasons you might think.

In fact, the unknowability of that question is perhaps one of the foundational elements of sports fandoms. Wondering about how your favorite player would have stacked up to similar players from the past is a debate in countless sports bars and tailgates. Would Babe Ruth have hit all those home runs if he’d been going up against the likes of today’s pitchers? Just how far would Jack Nicklaus in his prime have hit a driver if it weren’t made of persimmon wood?

Changes to athlete fitness and, more importantly, technological advances make hard to answer such questions, but the NYT’s story tackled it as best it could while highlighting some great statistics from some under-sung sports.

Professional darts is far from the most popular sport in the world, but it is a useful study of progress toward perfection. Its top professional players, on average, post higher scores today than their counterparts did a generation ago. These gains can be seen in other sports, too: Whether it’s hitting the bull’s-eye in archery, nailing a kick between the uprights in football or sinking a free throw in basketball, the world’s top players have improved their rates of precision meaningfully in the last four decades.

Spoiler alert: There are no hard-and-fast answers, but it’s an interesting look at the progression athletes across a broad range of sports have made towards perfection.