Rio 2016: The Edge Of Human Performance
August 15, 2009. Michael Johnson, one of the greatest sprinters in history, is in a glass commentary box at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. His mouth is agape as he stares at a television screen. His shakes his head in disbelief, eyes wide with bewilderment. He whispers the word, “Wow.” Across the world, millions of people have the exact same reaction. Usain Bolt has run the 100 metres in 9.58 seconds. How did man get so fast? Less than 50 years ago, we were talking about the 10-second barrier being an impossible one to break in the 100 metres. In 1954, people said Roger Bannister would die if he tried running the mile in less than four minutes. Less than 50 years later, Hicham El Guerrouj ran it in three minutes and 43 seconds. How? Mankind, of course, is relentlessly moving forward. In the last 50 years, we have put a man on the moon, cloned a sheep and created Facebook. But there is something very primal about sport that makes it hard to fathom how someone could achieve what Bolt did in Berlin.
Yes, technological advancements aid sportsmen; yes, science can devise better training regimes for them; yes, we’ve learned a whole lot about nutrition; but, eventually, modern athletes are made of the same muscles, tissue and bones that man had 100 years ago. So, there must, surely, a limit to how much they can improve. This is put in perspective when you consider that several statisticians and mathematicians have predicted limits on human performances that are very close to what has already been attained. Most of these analyses are based on the theory that since athletic records have been improving by smaller and smaller margins over the years, they will, sooner or later, stop improving altogether. Dr Reza Noubary of the Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania has used quantitative analysis to estimate that 9.40 seconds is the fastest man will ever run the 100 metres.
So, what happens if Bolt achieves that in Rio? Will man have reached his speed limit? Even more worrying for sports fans is a study by Professor Geoffrey Berthelot, a specialist in informatics and algorithmics at the National Institute of Sport and Physical Education in Paris. Berthelot makes a startling claim: that human athletic performance, in general, has already peaked. He plotted each and every world record since 1896 and found that in track and field, since 1993, records have not improved in nearly two-third of the events. Swimming performances, too, says Berthelot, stagnated in nearly 50 per cent of the events between 1990 to 2000, after which performances were improved due to the advent of high-tech swimsuits. The paper goes on to predict that by 2027, 50 per cent of all track and field events will show negligible improvements in terms of world records.
Why there might never be another Bubka
Sporting progress is almost a reassurance that we, mankind, are progressing; constantly taking baby steps across Nietzsche’s bridge to becoming the ubermensch. Our fathers had the sublime Maradona, we have the even better Messi; we grew up wondering whether Sampras would break Roy Emerson’s 12-Grand Slam record, then watched Federer race to 16, before watching even him struggle to match the raw athleticism and physicality of Nadal and Djokovic; we were barely done worshipping Mark Spitz, and we were gifted Michael Phelps. But, in a number of sports, the peak may already have been witnessed. It is quite possible, for example, that we have already seen the greatest pole-vaulter ever. Sergey Bubka set the pole-vault word record 17 times in a decade, between 1984 and 1994, peaking at 6.14 metres, and it took 20 years for Renaud Lavillenie of France to break it, in February 2014.
The envelope of possibilities
However, statistics can only make predictions and set ceilings on performance based on what has already happened. They do not actually tell you what the human body is capable of. In his book The Perfection Point, John Brenkus, the host of ESPN’s Sports Science show, uses existing statistics as just a starting point and then delves into what is scientifically possible in sport. Brenkus says that it is commonsensical to assume that there is some upper ceiling on human athletic performance. A sprinter might run 100 metres in 9 seconds in the near future, but, surely, he can’t lick the distance clean in two seconds. Similarly, an Olympian might lift 300 kg of weight at once, but it is impossible that he will lift a bus. But saying this — or ‘predicting’ any of this — is not really saying much. What Brenkus attempts to do is find that exact perfection point that we can reach but never get past. Contrary to the findings of Berthelot or Noubary, Brenkus’ analysis leaves huge scope for improvement in the coming years. In the 100 metres, for example, he pins the perfection point at 8.99 seconds. He uses Bolt’s 9.69 seconds at the 2008 Olympics and identifies the areas of the run which could have been improved to reach this figure (see box). Similarly, Brenkus hypothesises that we are far from having run the fastest marathon.
He cites a study by doctor and nutritionist Michael Joyner, which examines three variables that limit human endurance in long-distance running: 1. VO2 max, the point at which oxygen consumption plateaus and, therefore, defines an athlete’s maximum aerobic capacity. 2. Blood lactate threshold, a point where lactic acid floods muscle cells too fast for the body to metabolise the excess. 3. Running economy, which is the body’s ability to move forward divided by the energy expended. The study plots the various combinations of these variables to arrive at the fastest time in which a marathon can be run: 1:57:58, which is almost exactly five minutes faster than the current world record (Dennis Kimetto’s 2:02:57). It is to be noted that, Joyner published a follow-up study that predicted that the first sub-two hour marathon will be run in another 12-25 years.
But even Brenkus admits that his book is based on extrapolations, and assumes certain things will happen, like the fact that an athlete will be born who is even better suited to the 100-metre race than Bolt. To really understand the limits of human performance, we need to explore the various facets that actually go into breaking a world record.
Several other standing records make the notion that athletic progress has already peaked very believable. it is a depressing thought, but it is plausible that man will never surpass several of the current world records without the aid of some form of performance-enhancing agent.
98.48m: Jan Zelezny, 1996
84.58: Keshorn Walcott, 2012 Olympics
92.72m: Julius Yego, 2015 World Athletic Championships
74.08m: Jürgen Schult, 1986
68.27m: Gerd Kanter, 2012 Olympics
67.40m: Piotr Malachowski, 2015 World Athletic Championships
23.12m: Randy Barnes, 1990
21.89m: Tomasz Majewski, 2012 Olympics
21.93m: Joe Kovacs, 2015 World Athletic Championships
2.45m: Javier Sotomayor, 1993
2.38m: Ivan Ukhov, 2012 Olympics
2.34m: Derek Drouin, 2015 World Athletic Championships
8.95m: Mike Powell, 1991
8.31m: Greg Rutherford, 2012 Olympics
8.41m: Greg Rutherford, 2015 World Athletic Championships
How much do we really know about sports?
The year is 1968. Dick Fosbury, a 21-year-old American civil engineering student, psyches himself up before approaching the high-jump bar. When he takes off, instead of launching on his left foot, jumping forward and straddling the bar, as was the norm for a high-jumper, he kicks off with his right, turns his back to the bar, arches his back over it and kicks his legs out to clear it. The Fosbury Flop has been introduced to the world. It is stunning to think that this technique of jumping, which is now universally accepted as the most efficient, was invented less than 50 years ago. We’ve seen similar innovations in other sports as well. In cricket, reverse-swing was only discovered in the late 1970s, the doosra only in the 1990s.
In football, the swerving, or curling freekick, perfected by the likes of David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo, was invented in the 1950s by a young Brazillian midfielder named Didi. Can we rule out future changes in technique that will revolutionise a particular sport? Have we reached a stage where we have experimented enough and know the best way to hurl a javelin? Are we sure the front crawl is the fastest way to swim?
“We do not even know for sure why we walk or run the way we do,” says Madhusudhan Venkadesan, a reputed human evolutionary biologist based in Bangalore. “There are various divergent studies that suggest that the way we walk and run is the most efficient way to do so, but we don’t know how various factors, like, say, heat dissipation, affect the running gait.”
If we don’t know for sure what the perfect way to run is, then, surely, we can’t be sure we have reached the peak of athletic performance yet. Maybe if we ran on our tippy toes, we’d do the 100 metres in eight seconds or maybe we’d break the long-jump record by approaching the line on all fours. It is, obviously, highly unlikely that any such dramatic change in running style will occur. However, every new piece of information about a sport we gain through science is bound to have minor repercussions on the way the sport is approached.
The 100 metres, the test of a man’s top speed, is an event constantly attracting research and new theories. Not too long ago, it was thought that running speed was limited by the amount of force with which the limbs can strike the ground (ground force). However, a study by Peter Weyand, of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, Matt Bundle, of the University of Wyoming, and others, has shown that this not the case.
Weyand and Bundle performed experiments on seven athletes, each of whom hopped on one leg, and ran both forwards and backwards. It was found that the hop generated greater force than the sprint, suggesting that sprinters are capable of producing far greater forces than they do now. It was also found that the time for which the athlete’s foot was in contact with the ground was almost equal in the fastest forward speed and the fastest backward run, which suggests that contact time is the constraining factor that prevents a man from going faster in each of the directions.
In other words, the challenge for a sprinter is not to merely produce greater ground forces, but to produce greater ground forces without prolonging the contact time with the ground. Theoretically, a man can sprint at 66.4 kph if he could apply the ground forces that are known to be possible while hopping, which would mean he would complete the 100 metres in close to five seconds. Here, we stress the word theoretical. Practically speaking, says Weyand, it is almost certain that we can’t reach these speeds, as the ground forces applied in the running gait cannot be as high as those applied while hopping.
“What sprinters do is a trade off between the force they are applying and the frequency with which they are taking their steps,” Weyand explains. So, the question is, can a sprinter generate the existing ground forces — about 800 to 1000 pounds — faster? “A top sprinter’s foot is only in contact with the ground for about 0.09 seconds, out of which he is only applying a peak force for around 0.03 or 0.04 seconds,” says Weyand. One way of applying a higher ground force in less time would be to increase the proportion and the speed of the fast-twitch muscle fibers, which produce explosive speed. But Weyand and Bundle both stress that there’s a great deal of the unknown when it comes to 100-metres sprinting. “We don’t understand how the top sprinters produce the ground forces they do. So that limits our scientific knowledge of how fast a human can go,” says Weyand. “The best you can do is informed speculation, but that’s only possible if you have a big understanding of what’s going on. And when it comes to running speed and mechanics right now, we don’t.”
THE PERFECT 100 METRES
Here’s how John Brenkus, author of The Perfection Point, slashes 0.70 seconds off the 9.69 seconds Bolt recorded at the Beijing Olympics
Dennis Kimetto: The ideal athlete
When it comes to longer distances, understanding the science of running becomes even more complicated. Running, Venkadesan says, is quite likely to have played a large role in human evolution, as human beings needed to be able to run and walk long distances to hunt for food. This may also be the reason why humans compare better to quadrupeds when you measure their ability to run long distances than when you look at the top speeds they are able to hit. “Even a house cat can run faster than Usain Bolt,” Venkadesan says. “But, there are still Kenyan tribes that are able to hunt large quadrupeds on foot. Humans are very good at controlling their sweat and, therefore, dissipating heat. Animals need to pant to dissipate heat, but they can’t pant when they are galloping. This means that as long as you can force an animal to gallop when you are chasing it, even though it may out-sprint you initially, it will eventually suffer a heat stroke and collapse.”
If you consider the hypothesis that humans are more efficient distance runners than sprinters, then you may conclude that the epitome of human athletic performance is not Usain Bolt at all. It may, in fact, be Dennis Kimetto, the world record holder in the marathon. Brenkus says the marathon is an event too complex to lend itself to easy analysis. We know what physical attributes help marathon runners, but have no idea what the ideal combination of those attributes is.
Marathoners have training regimes that are varied, and often bizarre. One world class pro, Brenkus says, did all of his training on a quarter-mile track. When you watch Kimetto’s recordbreaking effort, you are left wondering how he picked a speed he knew would break the record. Did he know he would run it in 2:02:57 seconds or thereabouts? Naturally, marathoners train repeatedly with their pace-setters and, therefore, are attuned to pick a certain speed, but why and how they pick which parts of the race to run faster or slower is still not an exact science. What complicates matters is that research shows that a person can keep running faster and faster, and still be consuming the same amount of energy per kilometre, because, though you are using more energy to run faster, you are also covering the kilometre in a shorter time. “One hypothesis by Canadian researchers Max Donelan and Simon Fraser,” Venkadesan says, “is that we have inbuilt energy sensors in our body, which tell it how much ATP (adenosine triphosphate, the substance that provides the energy required to move your muscles) it is burning and therefore we pick a running speed accordingly.” What if we could somehow locate these energy sensors, or simply learned more about how humans pick running speeds? Surely that would make a big difference to the way athletes trained for the marathon.
Technology and training
During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Sports Illustrated magazine’s Tim Layden reported from the swim stadium that he was getting bored. Records were being broken in almost every race — 25 fell in swimming events — and there was no longer a thrill attached to them. The incredible spree continued in the following year’s World Championships in Rome, where a scarcely believable 43 records fell. All this, of course, was down not to some crazy spurt in the abilities of swimmers, but purely due to high-tech polyurethane swimsuits. Speedo’s body-length LZR swimsuit claimed to reduce the water’s drag against swimmers by 10 per cent and increase oxygen efficiency by five per cent, and the inflexible girdle-like structure of the suit kept swimmer’s bodies in the best position as they moved through the water. Since FINA, swimming’s governing body, banned all body-length suits in 2010, only seven swimming world records have been broken.
Leaps in performance due to a technological innovation are not uncommon. Weyand says that when the clap skate for ice-skating became popular in 1996-97, the hinged blade at the bottom of the skate helped prolong the push-off phase of the skating gait, resulting in most of the speed-skating records being broken. The question now is, how much more can we innovate, and, moreover, how much more innovation will the authorities allow? Studies like Weyand and Bundle’s provide the theory for what would improve athletic performance. But translating that into actual technological breakthroughs is not easy. “If a shoe could shorten contact time between a sprinter’s foot and the ground, it would increase his stride frequency and make him faster,” says Bundle. “But, that is not likely to work unless you used an artificial actuator in the shoe, which would be hard to disguise. We are actually working on a study that looks at the stiffness of running tracks and the design of shoes right now.” When it comes to training, again, the focus shifts slightly with every new discovery.
“What our study does is inform sprinters that focussing just on building muscle to increase the ground forces they can apply is not the right way to go,” says Bundle. “We are already strong enough, so the key is in trying to figure out how to generate substantial amounts of force in very brief periods of time. This is quite difficult.” Weyand says that there are transient effects from various different types of training, but no one knows fully why they occur. For example, most sprinters will spend some time training with tow-sleds and weighted belts, but no one quite knows why a sprinter runs faster after they are towed.
Finnish Cross-Country Skier
Was accused of blood doping in the 1970s, when tests showed he had 15 per cent more blood cells in his body than normal. It was later proved by researchers that Mdentyranta that and his family carried a rare genetic mutation produced the EPO hormone, which loaded his blood cells with 50 per cent more red cells than the average man’s, thus significantly increasing his body’s ability to transport oxygen and increase stamina.
His 6 foot 5 inch frame not only allows him to complete the 100 metres in three strides less than his competitors, but it also ensures his body dissipates heat faster, and, therefore, allows his muscles to work faster. For a tall man, Bolt has an abnormally high percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibres compared to slow-twitch muscles fibres in his body (estimated to be an 80-20 per cent split), allowing him to produce high amounts of force with each stride.
Has a wingspan that is three inches greater than his height, abnormally large feet and hands, a greater-than-average lung capacity that allows him to execute his underwater dolphin kicks longer than the competition and a genetic advantage that cause his muscles to produce 50 per cent less lactic acid than other athletes. In addition, Phelps is double-jointed in the chest area, which enables him to extend his arms higher above his head and pull down at an angle that increases his efficiency through the water by as much as 20 per cent; this also allows him to have quicker starts and turns.
One of the biggest riddles when it comes to athletic progress is that it is hard to spot patterns that are consistent across sports. In sports like the pole vault, discus throw, shot put or javelin throw, performance seems to be not just stagnant but on the decline. However, when you look at the 100 metres, the fastest five sprinters ever are all still active. In the long-distance races, records tend to break less often than in the sprints, but we have finally seen the legend Haile Gebrselassie’s records in the 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon all broken.
One clue to solving this puzzle could be to simply look at the nationalities of the athletes who excel at each sport. Sports like the pole vault, discus, shot put and javelin have traditionally been dominated by Europeans and white Americans; four of the five fastest ever 100-metre sprinters are from Jamaica; the longer distances are dominated by Kenyans and Ethiopians. It is fair to say that countries like Jamaica, Kenya and Ethiopia are significantly behind Europe and the USA in terms of development, and, therefore, the progress in events they dominate could simply be down to the fact that now more people in their countries have the opportunity to make a living out of athletics and access to better facilities. Perhaps some kid in Jamaica 20 years ago had the potential to become an Usain Bolt but simply never got the chance. This theory is given credence when you put it in the context of studies by journalist John Entine, author of Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We’re Afraid To Talk About It.
According to Entine, certain population groups have a clear genetic advantage over others in specific sports (see box). The reason why pretty much all the 100-metre finalists over the past eight Olympics have been athletes of West African descent, Entine says, is purely because they are built for sprinting: they have less fat on their limbs, a higher percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibres in their bodies and more anaerobic enzymes, among other things. That is why a white sprinter like Frenchman Christophe Lemaitre aimed, by his own admission, just to make it to the final of the 100 metres at London, in 2012.
70-75 per cent of their muscle fibres are slow, they have lean physiques and large lung capacities leading to a dominance of long-distance running events. East Africans hold more than 60 percent of the top times in long-distance races.
West Africans tend to have less subcutaneous fat on their arms and legs, broader shoulders, larger quadriceps, shallower chests, higher centres of gravity, generally shorter sitting height, narrower hips, lighter calves, and a higher percentage of fast-twitch muscles and more anaerobic enzymes, which can translate into more explosive energy. All this makes them ideally built for sprinting, which is why all top 10 fastest times in the 100 metres have been recorded by athletes of West African descent.
Whites of Eurasian ancestry are most likely to have strong upper bodies helping them dominate sports like weightlifting, pole-vault, javelin, discus and shot put.
Tend to be more flexible which has led to them winning a high number of medals in athletics, and have quick reflexes, making them good at sports like badminton and table-tennis.
White Americans hold nine of the 15 Olympic records in male swimming, and nine of the 20 world records (50m pool). Most of the world male swimming records are held by white men of Western European ancestry. The lack of body fat in black athletes makes it hard for them to swim.
Advancement in medical science and gene therapy
Entine says that once you accept that a large part of human performance is based on genes rather than training and environment, it follows that much of the progress we make from here on out will come from genetic enhancement, or genetic doping.
Already, there are gene therapies that have been shown, through animal testing, to be able to regulate the body’s energy metabolism, alter blood flow to the tissues, modify pain perception, and even postpone sexual development to keep preadolescent females in their prime. Blood doping — adding red blood cells before the race to increase oxygen and stamina — is already a growing problem for the regulators of sport.
“We have picked the low-hanging fruit of the tree, in terms of optimising training, technique and nutrition,” says Entine, “and the only way forward now is medical advancements.” Entine’s theory is that most top athletes today are already outliers, or genetic freaks (see box), so legalising gene therapies may actually level the playing field. In the University of Pennsylvania, Entine encountered a mouse named He-Man, who had been injected with a synthetic version of a gene called Insulin-like Frowth Factor 1 (IGF -1), a protein that makes muscles grow and repair themselves. The tiny white mouse, says Entine, had turned into a “Pocket Hercules”.
Meanwhile, Weyand tells us that in the SALK Institute, in San Diego, researchers have been able to use an experimental drug on rodents that reprogrammes their muscles and makes the muscle fibres slower. Slower muscle fibres are more efficient at using oxygen to generate ATP, thereby increasing endurance. Weyand says that now that the basic knowledge is in place, we should also be able to make muscle fibres faster.
Bundle explains that when an athlete trains, changes occur in his heart, mitochondria, muscle hypertrophy and other parts of his body because a training signal is activating the relevant genes and turning them on. “If this could be achieved therapeutically,” he says, “then someone could be able to acquire the benefits of the training regime of their choice without breaking a sweat or running a step.”
Even without going into the realm of gene therapy, there are ways in which athletes can medically enhance themselves, says Entine. “Take the Tommy John surgery (named after baseball pitcher Tommy John). A pitcher tears a ligament in his elbow, has it replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body, and most often comes back pitching faster than ever before.” Most doctors dispute the claim that the surgery can actually enhance athletic performance, but, according to Entine, we have not even begun to explore the ways in which medical science can increase athletic performance.
So, how many records will we see fall in Rio this year? And how long will we continue seeing records being broken? It seems increasingly likely that as science progresses, how far athletic performance goes will depend more on what regulatory bodies allow than what a human who makes full use of the technology available is actually capable of. In 100 years, it may be possible to “manufacture” a human with the muscle fibres of a rattlesnake, the mitochondria of a hummingbird and the red-blood cell count of a seal. But will he ever move us like Bolt does?
This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of MW. It has been updated.