Has the human body reached its limits?
Researchers of the l’Institut de recherche biomédicale et d’épidémiologie du sport (Irmes) have observed that in most of the sports disciplines, athletes have reached a physiological limit since the 1980s.
‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’ or ‘faster, higher, stronger’ has been the motto of the Olympics. For Henri Didon, a French preacher who coined that motto, ‘it contains the basis and rationale behind athletics’. Yet, the creation of new world records may be in danger now.
A study by the Institute published in 2015 in the journal Sports Medicine reveals that the performance of athletes has stagnated over the last three decades. Not only has new records become increasingly rare, but the difference of measurement between the records has also decreased. ‘In a few years we will have to measure in terms of milliseconds to continue to have world records,’ said Jean-François Toussaint, Director of IRMES.
By analysing the ten best performances each year in 137 disciplines since the early 20th century, French researchers have noticed the appearance of a physiological ceiling in most disciplines since the 1980s. Thus, in the women’s 400 metre run, athletes are struggling for thirty years to cross the bar of 8 metres/second while the latter stood at around 7.3 metres/second in 1960. This same phenomenon is observable in many disciplines like men’s triple jump, swimming, 100m and 200m freestyle, or the archery. ‘We have reached that stage of human limitations,’ said Geoffroy Berthelot, computer scientist at IRMES and co-author of the study.
Many factors came into play in allowing athletes to go as fast, reach as high and be as strong as they can. Topping the list has been ‘the Cold War and the professionalisation of sports’ that boosted the spirit of competition and enabled a very rapid growth,’ says Geoffroy Berthelot. To always get the better of geopolitical rivals, techniques and race strategies have been refined, the movements optimised to decrease energy losses. Sometimes such efforts have been made in excess, with widespread use of drugs, particularly in countries like the erstwhile East Germany.
Specialisation by morphology
Technology too contributed to this development. Within a century, the equipment and the conditions in which athletes train and compete allowed them to gain a few centimetres or tenths of a second. ‘In 1936, when Jesse Owens set the 100m record, he ran on a track made of ashes of burnt wood. Today Usain Bolt runs on surfaces that waste less energy,’ recalls David Epstein, author of the book Le Gène du sport.
Once the insturments are set up, the athlete only has to give the best of herself to the limit set by her anatomy. ‘Today we know that every sport requires a different physical profile. To run the 100 metres, it is better to be big and powerful but it will be the exact opposite for a marathon runner,’ says Jean-François Toussaint. A remarkable example of this phenomenon of specialisation suited to one’s morphological profile is that of Michael Phelps, the champion swimmer and Hicham El Guerrouj, the 1500m record holder. They have an 18 cm difference in height, yet their legs have the same length. This is explained by the need to have a long trunk when swimming. An attribute to the contrary would penalise a middle-distance swimmer.
‘We cannot run as fast as a cheetah’
‘Athletes have understood that they would have to exploit their morphology in disciplines that best suit them,’ says the researcher. They may even have to abandon some sports in favour of others. So while the Scandinavians, with their imposing builds, dominated the middle distance in the 1970s, the rise to power of smaller African runners in the following decades caused a drop in the rankings of the Dutch athletes. The morphology of the Africans allowed them to achieve unattainable records and the Scandinavians gradually abandoned that discipline.
‘This factor of having a maximum limit in the performance is not bad,’ says Geoffroy Berthelot. ‘Humans are the only species who are able to understand nuclear physics. But we do not have the physical attributes to run as fast as the cheetah. We must accept it.’