From Covid deaths to Usain Bolt: statistics are never black and white

Who is the greatest 100 metre male runner of all time? The answer seems obvious, even if you lack sporting common knowledge, it is only a quick Google search away. 

Usain Bolt’s time of 9.58 seconds is unchallenged. Both Tyson Gaye and Yohan Blake are quite away behind with records of 9.69. This year’s Olympic final was won in a “mere” 9.80.

When we delve into the statistics and understand the data a bit more, a rival emerges.

Bob Hayes was a star wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1960s and early 1970s. His speed left defences standing.

The Cowboys lured him because Hayes had won the 100 metre gold medal in the 1964 Olympics, held in Tokyo as it happens. His official time of 10.06 seems modest by today’s standards.

In the 1960s, timing technology was in a complex transition between hand-held and electronic watches. His unofficial time was actually under 10 seconds.

More importantly, in contrast to our high-tech tracks, designed for speed, Hayes ran on a cinder track – yes, cinders, which readers of a certain generation may remember from their school days. He also ran on the inside lane, which the previous day had been used for a walking race event and was badly chewed up.

Hayes at least did not sprint in Dunlop Green Flash plimsolls, he used spikes. But when he got to the track, he only had one of his shoes in his bag, so he ran in borrowed shoes – a faux pas in the world of elite sports.

Even though Bolt didn’t wear the latest shoe technology which has allowed several world records to be broken recently, shoes have improved a lot since Hayes’ race in the 1960s.

It is hard to translate all of this into a precise figure for the time Hayes would have recorded in modern shoes on a modern track but it must have been very close to Bolt’s world record. This view is supported by Hayes’ victory in the 4×100 metre relay leg in the 1964 Olympics. According to the hand timer, he clocked in between 8.5 and 8.9 seconds, still the fastest in history.

There is a lesson in all of this, which goes far beyond the track. 

To use a recent example, the number of total deaths from Covid provides a good illustration. 

More than 130,000 people have died, a frightening headline figure. But at least 95 per cent of Covid deaths were of people with an existing serious health issue such as obesity or respiratory problems. In other words, only 6,000 otherwise healthy adults died from Covid from March 2020. For those who count loved ones among those numbers, it is tragic. 

But this comes in at an annual rate of around 4,000. For context, nearly 2,000 died each year in traffic accidents. Yet the road system is not shut down to try and prevent them. 

Lockdowns in the UK were widely justified on the basis of “protecting the NHS”. The fear was not of deaths from Covid necessarily, but the wider ramifications for the health service if it became overwhelmed by cases of the virus. 

Statistics, numbers and data are important. But a wider appreciation of what lies behind them is essential. So as we hold our breaths as we head into colder weather, and the threat of more Covid cases, we must be vigilant of the new context we’re living in. This is not March 2020. We now have a vaccine and we must be able to relearn how to assess risk in a sensible manner.

Paul Ormerod
As published in City AM Wednesday 18th August 2021
Image: Flickr

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