London 2012: Will world records be hard to come by at the Games?

How many world records can we expect at London 2012?

The answer is disappointingly few, if that little "WR" graphic in the corner of your screen is what attracts you to Olympic sport. Certainly, fewer than we saw at Beijing 2008.

World records are only a factor in a handful of Olympic sports: in most they are either exceptionally rare, inconsequential or simply do not exist as a concept.

The established big guns if you want to see world records are athletics, track cycling and swimming.

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Flo Jo's world records were run in times that women in this decade don't get anywhere near

David Moorcroft

At the Beijing Games, world records were broken in 33 separate events: one in women's team archery, four in weightlifting (some several times over), five in athletics (of which Usain Bolt set three), two in track cycling - the men's team pursuit, broken twice by Great Britain, plus the British trio in men's team sprint qualifying - and the remainder in swimming.

Yet swimming world records may be scarce, at best, in the London Aquatics Centre this summer.

In the aftermath of Beijing 2008, the sport spent a year enveloped in technological warfare as rival companies vacuum-packed their swimmers in ultra-aerodynamic, ever-faster suits.

World governing body Fina called a halt to the escalating conflict at the end of 2009, rewriting the rules on swimsuits and restoring some sort of order, but by then the damage to the record books had been done.

Take a look at swimming's long-course world records  (i.e. those for a 50m Olympic pool) and the overwhelming majority were set in 2009. Of 40 current world records, that year is responsible for 33.

Adlington's Beijing 800m freestyle remains a world record despite 2009's technological advances

As yet, there are no asterisks denoting those records aided by swimsuit technology. Since 2009, wearing considerably slower suits, only Ryan Lochte in the men's 200m medley and China's Sun Yang in the men's 1500m freestyle have set new world marks, both at last year's World Championships.

Rebecca Adlington's world-record time to win 800m freestyle gold at the Beijing Games is now, bizarrely, the third-oldest record in women's long-course swimming. No woman has broken a world record since the 2009 suits were banned.

This means swimmers, responsible for some 20 world records at Beijing 2008, will have to produce performances beyond the phenomenal even to break one or two at London 2012.

Though swimsuit developers are now trying to push the boundaries of the new rules, times so far in 2012 suggest a return to 2009's record-breaking times may not materialise at the Games.

Switching to athletics, of the five world records set in Beijing four years ago, only the women's 3,000m steeplechase mark set by Russia's Gulnara Samitova-Galkina still stands. Bolt has since lowered his 100m and 200m records, and helped Jamaica break their previous 4x100m relay best.

Athletics has its own version of swimming's 2009 - the 1980s, when mostly Eastern Bloc athletes set a swathe of records. In the years since, a succession of doping revelations has left the authenticity of many in doubt.

In the words of journalist Matthew Syed, there is "a contagion of suspicion around anyone who did anything superlative" in that era.

Syed was referring to Flo Jo - Florence Griffith-Joyner, the American superstar whose women's 100m and 200m world records have stood unbroken for almost 24 years.

Oldest world records

Longest-standing world records in Olympic events, as ratified by world governing bodies:

  • Athletics: Women's 800m - 1:53.28, Jarmila Kratochvilova (Czech Republic), 26 July 1983
  • Swimming: Women's 400m individual medley - 4:29.45, Stephanie Rice (Australia), 10 August 2008
  • Track Cycling: Men's 200m flying lap (qualifier for sprint finals/one of six omnium races) - 9.572, Kevin Sireau (France), 30 May 2009

David Moorcroft, Britain's former 5,000m world record-holder, believes the case of Flo Jo - who died following an epileptic seizure in 1998 - is symptomatic of the jaundice affecting 1980s athletics records.

"It was incredible, what she did," Moorcroft told BBC Radio 5 live, "but then we all felt the same when we watched Ben Johnson [the Canadian sprinter whose own world record and 1988 Olympic title were stripped for doping offences].

"We'll never know the truth. What we do know is that both of Flo Jo's world records, and the women's 400m record held by Marita Koch [running for then-East Germany] since 1985, were run in times that women in this decade don't get anywhere near.

"There has to be an element of your thinking that says: it's a cleaner sport now, we're getting performances more representative of what women are naturally capable of.

"We'll never know with Flo Jo. She never failed a drugs test and, if you take it at face value, it was a wonderful sight."

Koch's 400m world record is predated by only two others in athletics - the earliest being Czech runner Jarmila Kratochvilova's time of one minute 53.28 seconds in the women's 800m, set in July 1983.

Last year's world title-winning women's 800m runner, Russia's Mariya Savinova, won gold in a time more than two seconds slower than Kratochvilova managed almost 30 years earlier.

Sergey Bubka on his world records

Not every seemingly insurmountable athletics record is under suspicion. Michael Johnson's 400m record, dating back to 1999, is more than a second quicker than current world champion Kirani James's personal best.

Meanwhile, Bolt's treble in the sprint events may only come under threat if the man himself makes it to the start line in full health after a troubled few years.

In the field events, nobody looks set to challenge Sergey Bubka's 6.14m pole vault record, while triple jumper Jonathan Edwards set a world record of 18.29m in 1995 that has not been touched since.

"It's inevitable that record will one day get beaten, that's just the way of world records," says Edwards, now a BBC presenter. "I think the current world champion, Christian Taylor, is a special talent. He's 22 years old and his whole career is ahead of him - he's the most likely to break it."

But this summer? The American would have to find an additional 34cm, on top of the personal best that won him world gold, to surpass Edwards next month.

There are some track and field opportunities, Ashton Eaton being one example. The US decathlete broke the world record last month at his national Olympic trials.

But British heptathlete Jessica Ennis would need to improve her best-ever performance by more than 100 points to topple Carolina Kluft's world record (under new javelin specifications since 2000) of 7,032 points from the 2007 World Championships.

If athletics draws a blank, the hunt for world records at London 2012 may come down to the action inside the Olympic Velodrome.

Track cycling has its own arms race in place between Australia and Great Britain, on both human and technological fronts. Since the Australians were drubbed by Britain in Beijing, where GB won seven gold medals, the two have vied to be fitter, faster and technologically superior on every start line.

At track cycling's World Championships in Melbourne earlier this year, three major world records fell: two to Britain in the team pursuits and one to Germany in the women's team sprint.

London proved itself a quick velodrome in February's Olympic test event and with new bike designs allied to athletes in peak condition, the teams themselves are expecting to go even faster.

"We do think, come the Olympics, it's going to be an extremely fast venue," said British Cycling's performance director, Dave Brailsford, after the test event. "Hopefully we'll see some records fall."