Complexity helps solve Olympian problems

Photo by D AllenI sometimes feel a small sense of wonder at how revealing complexity can actually help, rather than hinder, problem-solving.

This complexity can be revealed by zooming out from a problem and looking at the bigger picture. I’ve previously written about how this approach can help us deal with risk and uncertainty better. Or it can be revealed if we stop thinking about things in either/or terms and look instead for more continuous underlying variability. See elsewhere for a couple of blog posts on that (relating to security and more), and how considering variable outcomes is a more honest way of looking at risk.

And the other day I came across another very tangible example… in the Olympics. Radio 4’s “More or less” programme asked why swimming records are broken so much more often than records for track and field events. According to the programme, from 1972 to 2016 approximately 10% of Olympic track and field events resulted in a record being broken, while in swimming events it’s been closer to 40%. And you might think records become harder to break as the years go by and (presumably) we approach the edge of human possibility. Not quite—it’s true for track and field but (again) not swimming. Since 2000, only 6% of track and field events have resulted in broken records, but it was still up at around 40% for swimming.

How can this be?

Canadian swimming coach and mathematician Rick Madge provided an answer: complexity. Swimming has so many more variables. All parts of your body are being used, there is interaction with water and air, complex streamlining mechanics, multiple ways you can use your legs, and so on. Because there is so much complexity there is much more opportunity for optimisation.

As an example they discussed Adam Peaty’s record-breaking 100m breaststroke. He’s been able to achieve this by developing a particular variant of the stroke that uses enormous power, but it comes with a trade-off: it’s not sustainable for much more than 100m, and certainly not for the next step up, which is 200m. However, if the problem you’re trying to solve is swimming 100m as fast as possible, then it’s great.

There’s much more on the programme about how Olympic swimmers have been able to improve steadily over the years. Meanwhile, those of us with less glamorous day jobs can continue to find and exploit new variables to solve our own problems.

Photo by D Allen