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Have we reached the limits of sports performance?

February 17th, 2010

Further to yesterday’s post about the incredible amount of work ski technicians do to squeeze an extra half-second out of downhill skis, a reader sent me this link to an article in the L.A. Times titled “Have Olympic athletes done all they can?”:

Some scientists say so. Papers published in the last few years indicate that human performance has already peaked, and the only way to improve is with technology — or cheating.

The article takes a look at the various biomechanical and statistical arguments suggesting that world records aren’t going to progress much further. There are, of course, some holes we can poke in those studies. For instance:

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.

It’s hard to believe anyone could write this with a straight face. Of the seven records still standing from 1988, four of them were set by women from Eastern Bloc countries with well-established state doping programs, and two were by Florence Griffith-Joyner. If the year 1988 represented the “peak” of anything, it was unfettered doping, not human performance. Not coincidentally, that was the year Ben Johnson was busted, and authorities, however reluctantly, started tightening doping controls.

But to be honest, I think poking these sorts of holes in the article is missing the broader point. Are we reaching a regime of diminishing returns in terms of performance? Of course! In 1900, the world record for the men’s mile was 4:12.75; 100 years later, it was 3:43.13. Unless we expect to be running two-minute miles in 300 years, it’s obvious that the curve has to gradually flatten out.

Does this mean we’re reaching “The Limit” of human performance in the mile? This is where I think the conceptual framework of the L.A. Times article is a little shaky. There is no limit, there’s just statistics. The farther we push towards the extreme edge of the distribution, the less likely we are to find an outlier with even better characteristics, and the smaller the margin of improvement will be. But the distribution never just stops. Even if Usain Bolt turns out to be a once-in-five-generations talent, there’s still the possibility, 10 generations from now, of someone just like him but with, say, slightly quicker reaction time.

Training and technology are the two other X-factors. In a sport like swimming, if you reinvent the swimsuit, you’re essentially moving the finish line. Is Michael Phelps better than Ian Thorpe? I have no idea, because they’re competing under different circumstances. To me, the resulting debate is less interesting, because we end up discussing the rules and bylaws of sport rather than human performance (which is why, as I argued here, I think sports governing bodies should be reactionary and conservative in their approach).

As for training, it’s impossible to separate training from talent. (One major aspect of talent, after all, is having an abnormally large response to training.) It’s advances in training, far more than track surfaces and better shoes, that separate today’s milers from Roger Bannister. Have we optimized the science of training? Far from it, though we’ve certainly picked most of the low-hanging fruit.

So if the message of the Times piece is that humans have reached their “peak,” I think they need to revisit their statistics. If it’s that athletes, especially in “mature” sports, will improve less frequently and by smaller margins than in the past — well then, yeah. Of course.

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