Limits on Olympic Acheivement – Not Yet

We are all amazed at the human spectacle that is the Olympics.  The power of the summer games lies in our ability to relate to the athletes.  We all have run, swam, jumped, and even played table tennis.   Because we have a good sense of our personal limitations we can better appreciate the feats of a Justin Gatlin or a Missy Franklin.

More astoundingly, every competition seems to set a new record.  But what is the limit?   Common sense asserts that there must be some barrier that cannot be breached.  At some point someone will achieve the maximum potential of human biology.  It is inevitable.  Isn’t it?

This idea is best represented by the four-minute mile.  For ages, it was held that no man could possibly run that distance in under four minutes.  Many tried and many failed.  Then, Roger Bannister beat the mark in 1954 – a feat so impressive it was memorialized in bronze.   While it is true that no woman has yet run a four-minute mile, the record for men currently stands at 3 minutes 43 seconds.

To get a sense of the dramatic improvements in physical performance compare American swimmers Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps.  Both men have dominated their shared sport, both specialized in the butterfly stroke, and both men competed in the space age, meaning that these two champions are a reasonable approximate for an apples-to-apples comparison.

The 6’1” Spitz is most famous for the 1972 games where he set seven world records en route to seven gold medal.  Overall, Spitz owns eight medals.  The 6’4” Phelps dominated the 2008 and 2012 games and claimed a record 22 medals, including 18 gold medals.

Racing in the 100 meter butterfly, Spitz cruised to a record setting victory in 54.27 seconds.  Phelps 100 meter butterfly record is 49.82 seconds – a half-second edge per ten meters.  The slowest man in the 2012 finals finished in 52.05 seconds.  Spitz’ time would not have won the 2012 women’s finals.

In the 200 meter freestyle Spitz shattered the record with a time of 1:52.78.  In 2012 American woman Allison Schmidt won with 1:53.61.  Phelps did that distance in 1:42.86.  The inferiority of yesterday’s champ shows more clearly over greater distances.  Spitz failed to win his 400 meter individual medley (Sweden’s Gunner Larsson won at 4:31.98).  Phelps set a record time in Beijing at 4:03.84.

Spitz was a record-setting freak of the pool in 1972.  At his very best he could not get into the water with a 2012 Olympian.   The trend to bigger, faster, stronger marches inexorably on.  Yet, we know there is a limit.  There has to be.

Dr. Mark Denny of Stanford University believes he has identified the limit.  Using a hundred years of data Denny developed a statistical approach called extreme-value analysis.  Long story short, the professor calculates that the fastest anyone could run a 100 meter dash is 9.48 seconds – a mere .10 faster than Usain Bolt ran yesterday in London.  The interesting thing is that between 2008 and 2009 Bolt trimmed .11 seconds from his own personal best.   (Read more in the Economist)

So, maybe Dr. Denny is wrong, but certainly, there is no way some runner could run the 100 in, say, less than 9 seconds.

According to Southern Methodist University biologist Peter Weyland it may be possible.  He believes that an additional force could be wrought from human leg muscles that could improve performance by as much as 30 percent.

How then, does a Mark Spitz become a Michael Phelps in a mere 40 years?  For the sake of argument let us assume that both men were equally competitive, and thus mentally focused on winning.  Let’s also assume that both swimmers share a common work ethic in their training.  Then the quantum leap from 1972 to 2012 is a result of biological science, manifested in improved nutrition and exercise regiments.

We do not know what science will unlock next.  Nor can we imagine what potential could be unleashed with psychological advances.  In spite of that intuitive feeling that Phelps is the best swimmer we will ever witness, history indicates that it is only a matter of time – and not much time at that – before Phelps is dethroned.

It may seem improbable, but human performance could reach unthinkable heights.  After all, not too long ago the four-minute mile was an impossible barrier.


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