Sunday, February 21, 2010

Have Athletes Reached Their Limits?

On page A12 of today's Kansas City Star (sourced from the Los Angeles Times), I read with interest the article entitled, "How many more records can athletes break?" subtitled, "Not many, say scientists who believe humans have reached the peak of athletic achievement." (I am unable to find the article online, or I would link it here.)

The story was introduced by yet another track and field winner who was stripped of a previously earned gold medal after it was discovered she "admitted to using a performance enhancing drug." It was explained, " many sports scientists, the news was evidence of a broader trend. They believe that human athletic performance has peaked, and only cheating or technological advances will result in a rash of new world records."

"A French researcher who analyzed a century's worth of world records concluded in a recent paper that the peak of athletic achievement was reached in 1988. Eleven world records were broken that year in track and field. Seven of them still stand... [I]n the 1990s we started to see a decrease in performance. Now, there are a lot of events that don't show any progression at all." The article explains that the less mature winter sports will still see a rise, and the spike in swimming records around 2000 were due to the introduction of new high-tech swimsuits.

The concern here is that "the public thinks that athletes will get better and better. That's why they tune in to watch. I don't know if people realize that athletes can't keep improvement at the rates they have been," explained Conrad Earnest, director of exercise biology at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, LA.

Now, that's an interesting point for runners. Mostly, just for us to ponder, as we won't be anywhere near world record breaking, nor do we care. (But, hey, if you are world record contender, let me welcome you to my blog, thanks for stopping by!) I do wonder how much of today's superior running achievements are due to hard work and the gift of genetics, versus how much doping or other banned substances are used to shave a few milliseconds? And, do people really watch these events to behold a world record? Or do they watch for the drama of a good foot race? What if there are no "natural" (read: no illegal performance enhancing drugs or doping) marathons faster than Haile's 2:03:59 set in Berlin a little over a year ago? Does it matter? Tell me what you think.


  1. I think people watch these events for the drama, not to see a world record broke.

    While there is no doubt a limit to human athletic limits, I don't think it is wise to quanity it in terms of existing records. The power of belief is very strong. To convince athletes that records can no longer be broken is not a good thing. It's good that Roger Banister didn't believe all the "experts" in 1954 when he broke the 4 minute mile.

  2. Matt, Yes, good point on Roger Banister.. and that his heart didn't explode either (like some had said to break the barrier). I like the concept of power of belief. --Alex

  3. I'll try this again. Somehow the first time I commented didn't show up.

    I don't know that the potential will ever be fully reached. There are always advancements in biofeedback, and improvements in training techniques. Some through trial and error, but I don't think absolutely everything will ever be fully uncovered. I'd have to dust off the old calculus book to explain it in the right terms but as the potential is neared, improvements will slow down enough that they seem to approach zero but will never get fully to zero. Of course, there is also the genetic freak of nature that comes along every once in a while. What are the chances that we've seen the last or best freak?

    As far as "Does it matter?" Just speaking for me, it is always interesting to see records broken, but the race I really prefer to watch is a good hard-fought head-to-head battle where the winner guts it out regardless of whether the conditions are pristine like they probably were the last time the record was set.

  4. Rick, Right.. I don't think they were suggesting that there would never be another record ever, but that we're seeing that improvement curve approaching zero--just as you said. But, I did find that thought fascinating... and wondered if we'd see another "natural" world record in our lifetime, say, for the marathon (emphasis on natural). I love to watch a good race, but it's also very exciting to watch when you see that someone is on pace for a new world record. Either way, won't diminish my enjoyment of watching the sport. -Alex

  5. Think about Usain Bolt the previous world record was 9.74 held by Asafa Powell, Bolt SMASHED that with a 9.58. Normally the record was being beat by hundredths of a second.

    Also times will continue to fall, it's only been in the last 20-30 years that runners have gone professional and dedicated all of their time to running. Now thing about these pro. runners who are having children with other pro. runners.