The great stagnation

Reasearch says Olympic athletes have reached their biological limits

Updated: July 11, 2012, 4:29 PM ET
By Peter Keating | ESPN The Magazine

Numbers IllustrationIllustration by DogoEven in an era that disapproves of doping, records are still vulnerable, writes Keating.

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A FUNNY THING HAPPENED on the way to the London Olympics: Athletes stopped breaking world records. Remember the run-up to Beijing in 2008, when the sports world was abuzz over how many marks Michael Phelps would smash? He set seven world records there but hasn't bested a global time since 2009. The Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010 provided plenty of drama but few record-shattering wins -- Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo's highest-ever score in pairs figure skating wasn't exactly a Bob Beamon moment. World records are now decades old in classic men's Olympic sports such as the long jump (1991), shot put (1990) and discus throw (1986).

Many scientists have concluded from recent events that athletic performance is hitting a wall. Geoffroy Berthelot of INSEP, a sports research institute in Paris, looked at competitions from 1896 to 2007 and found that peak scores stopped improving in 64 percent of track and field events after 1993. Giuseppe Lippi of the University of Verona examined nine Olympic sports from 1900 to 2007 and found similar results. "Improvement has substantially stopped or reached a plateau in several specialities," he wrote. Berthelot has predicted that the "human species' physiological frontiers will be reached" in most sports around 2027.

But what these researchers are detecting isn't some final biological frontier but rather a lull in technological enhancement. Athletes have always relied on science to push the bounds of achievement. Olympic athletes' great stagnation, then, is really a temporary halt in innovation.

We like to think of sprinting times or pole-vault heights as ideal scores, measuring something pure about achievement. But to set a record, you need not only world-beating raw skill but also technique, training, diet, chemicals and clothing that make the most of your talent. These assists can be as innocuous as wearing the right pair of shoes or as insidious as thickening your blood. The fierce competition to run a four-minute mile generated such improvements in conditioning and technique that the feat became reachable. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mark, and within three years 16 others had. Dick Fosbury figured out how to high-jump by leaping back first, and his Flop revolutionized the sport when he won Olympic gold in 1968. Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery and others took Victor Conte's designer steroids on the way to winning events in the late 1990s and early aughts, only to be busted afterward.

To be sure, we do not improve solely because of outside influences. The scope of innate human possibility increases over time, in part because the number of people does. Scott Berry, a former statistics professor at Texas A&M, has found that population change accounted for 68.7 percent to 95.4 percent of the variability in winning scores in seven Olympic sports.

But it's innovation -- scientific discoveries and breakthrough applications -- that improves performance in bursts and produces records in bunches. Women's track and field stars achieved all kinds of record times in the 1980s, when Soviet-bloc countries were massively doping their athletes. Their actions encouraged other nations to do the same, and neither drug testing nor Olympic politics initially shunned the behavior. In swimming, peak times picked up after 2000, when athletes started wearing full-body suits. The times stalled again in 2009, when FINA, swimming's governing body, banned the LZR suits and their brethren. Plateaus in world records don't mean athletes' bodies are reaching their limits; they mean we've slowed down the help, largely for moral reasons, that athletes' bodies can get from outside forces.

But even in an era that disapproves of doping, records are still vulnerable. Through rigorous training, Usain Bolt has bested even the hypodermically enhanced times of Montgomery and Ben Johnson. Recently, John Barrow, a University of Cambridge mathematician, calculated that Bolt could run faster. If he got off the blocks quicker, ran at an altitude of 1,000 meters and had a tailwind of two meters per second -- all legal -- he could lower his 100-meter time (9.58) to an incredible 9.44 seconds.

When Bolt or the next great sprinter breaks that, we'll have more than the athlete's talent to thank -- which is as it's always been.

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Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.