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Jamaica’s Usain Bolt poses beside the timing board after he set a world record in the 200-meters at the 2009 World Athletics Championships.

Has the Performance of Olympic Athletes Reached Its Natural Peak?

January 19, 2011 07:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
The number of world records set in track and field and other Olympic events has decreased substantially over the last two decades, indicating that athletes may have reached the natural limits for athletic performance.

Studies Find Little Room for Athletic Improvement

The performance of athletes in many Olympic events may have reached a peak, according to a study by the National Institute of Sport and Physical Education in Paris (INSEP). The study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, is an update of one released two years ago that reached similar conclusions.

In examining the progression of world records in sports such as track and field, swimming, speed skating and weightlifting, the study’s authors found that the number of world records has stagnated since 1988.

“We saw a strong evolution of performance during the past century,” lead author Geoffroy Berthelot told the Los Angeles Times. “Then in 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.”

Through the 20th century, as elite athletes devoted more of their lives to their sports and training and nutrition became more sophisticated, performance progressed quickly. However, training can only improve performance to a certain degree.

“Everyone in Vancouver is pretty much a full-time athlete,” said Carl Foster, director of the human performance laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, to the Los Angeles Times. “Once you become a full-time athlete, the body only does so much.”

The limits of training are exemplified in sprinting and jumping events, explains Giuseppe Lippi, author of a 2008 Italian study published in the British Medical Bulletin. A sprinter’s performance is dependent mainly on fast-twitch muscles, which are not easily enhanced through training; by comparison, an endurance athlete’s slow-twitch muscles and aerobic activity “can be substantially increased by either regular training or manipulation (e.g. blood doping),” says Lippi.

The future of athletic performance, both the French and Italian studies conclude, might only improve through exceptional individual performances or through genetic or artificial enhancements.

Background: The progression of athletic achievement

Bob Beamon’s Atypical Improvement
World records tend to be broken in small increments; the most notable exception to this rule occurred in 1968, one of the two major peak years of athletic performance, according to INSEP.

Competing at the Mexico City Olympics, American long jumper Bob Beamon jumped 29 feet, 2 1/2 inches, shattering the previous record by one foot, 10 1/2 inches. Beamon’s jump wouldn’t be topped until 1991.

Beamon’s feat can be considered an outlier when looking at the progression of the long jump record. There were several factors that contributed to the record: “a following wind of 2.0 meters per second (the maximum allowable velocity for a record), a lightning fast runway and, most important, the thin air of Mexico City,” says ESPN.

Grete Waitz and the Improvement of Women
The progression of women’s records moved at a faster rate than men’s records. This is because there were fewer women competing and fewer elite competitions for much of the 20th century, leaving more room for improvement.

The rapid improvement of women’s records is exhibited in Grete Waitz’s amazing series of marathon races. In the 1978 New York City Marathon, a race she didn't intend to finish, Waitz broke the women’s record by two minutes. Over the next seven years, she lowered the record another seven minutes.

Waitz’s competitors showed similar improvements; her final record time, run in the 1983 London Marathon, was bested by nearly three seconds just a day later. The current women’s record stands at 2:15:25, nearly 20 seconds better than the time Waitz beat in 1978. Over the same period, the men’s record has improved just five seconds.

The French and Italian studies differ on their views of the future of women’s record progression. Lippi predicts that “some female WRs can still be expected to be broken, given increased access and participation.” Berthelot, on the other hand, writes, “Women may have reached their limits before men, despite a later entry into Olympic competition.”

The Role of Performance-Enhancing Drugs
The two main peak years identified by the French study, 1968 and 1988, may have been caused by the increased use of performance-enhancing drugs. Lippi found that “the curves slowed down in the 1970s in both men and women, at the time that antidoping testing was initially introduced by the International Olympic Committee.”

The 1988 Olympics had 11 world records set in track and field, all but four of which still stand. The most famous record-breaker was 100-meter sprint champion Ben Johnson, who was later stripped of his medal after he tested positive for an anabolic steroid. Florence-Griffith Joyner, who broke two sprint records, was also rumored to have used PEDs during her career.

The peak came to an end after stricter doping laws were introduced; “Procedures for unexpected, out-of-competition anti-doping controls were officially approved one year later and 1988 can be considered as the T&F golden year of exceptional marks, which subsequently resulted in a large stagnation in the women's events,” writes Berthelot.

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