Top Athletes May Be Running Into a Tall Hurdle: Themselves

NYT – Top Athletes May Be Running Into a Tall Hurdle: Themselves [RSS]

Human prowess is not supposed to have a reverse gear. Computer chips shrink and become more powerful. Skyscrapers grow taller, and spaceships travel farther. Medicine keeps people alive longer. But for almost a decade, the Summer Olympics have offered a mysterious exception. In some of the most basic ways imaginable – how fast people can run, how high they can jump, how far they can throw – the march of progress has stopped. The track and field athletes competing in Athens Olympic Stadium over the next week and a half may well struggle to match the performances of their predecessors.

Four years ago, no relay team was able to cover 400 meters as quickly as four United States runners had in 1988 in Seoul, South Korea. Carl Lewis jumped farther in Seoul than any man would 12 years later in Sydney, Australia, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee did the same among women. In more than two-thirds of track and field events, in fact, the gold-medal performances in 1988 would have been good enough to win again in 2000. Just one result from 1976, by contrast, would have won in 1988, among the 32 events in which comparisons are possible, said Raymond Stefani, a professor of electrical engineering at California State University at Long Beach who studies the Olympics.

In more than a century of Olympic history, only world wars, by killing millions of people in their athletic prime, had previously caused this kind of stagnation. So its return has inevitably raised the question of whether human beings are finally approaching the limits of physical accomplishment, after decades of unfulfilled predictions about such limits. Many athletes and coaches, and some scientists too, say the answer is probably yes. To others, however, a less natural explanation is more likely. At least some of the record performances from the 1970’s and 80’s owe themselves to the miracle of drugs. Only now, after a decade of more effective drug testing, do athletes seem to be catching up to the steroid-aided results of the past, many Olympics watchers say.

Fascinating. Certainly, drug testing is a plausible answer. Too, it seems natural that there would be a plateau given that, at some point, there have to be limits to how many hours a day an athlete can train, how early in his life he can start, how much nutrition can be optimized, and so forth. As more athletes train at this essential peak, it would seem likely that progress would slow.

Beside the stagnation of Olympic results, the recent progress of women in sports and a dearth of breakthroughs with new equipment offer reasons to wonder if the time is now. For decades, female athletes were closing the gap between their performances and those of males. Women had long been denied the athletic scholarships, endorsements and training resources that men had received, and as the playing field began to be leveled, women made rapid improvements.

Athletes will continue to find ways to get faster and stronger and technological advances will help, too. The four minute mile was once considered the limit of human achievement; it is now routine for elite athletes. One would think that the laws of physics and time would kick in at some point, though.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.