Olympics: Will we reach a point where sports records can no longer be broken?
How close are humans to peak performance? Not far off, says science.
In 1908, the record for a marathon was 2:55:18. Over the next 50 years, the record was beaten 22 times, knocking more than 40 minutes off the time. But in the 50 years after that, the time dropped by only another 10 minutes and since 2002 the record has improved by less than four minutes.
This broad pattern has been repeated across nearly all sports; there are occasionally jumps due to changes in regulations or the introduction of new techniques and equipment, but the improvement due to raw muscular performance has got smaller.
Various studies have attempted to extrapolate this trend to find the limits of the human body. For instance, research at the University of Wyoming concluded that 100m sprint times aren’t limited by how much force a runner can apply to the ground, but by how quickly they can swing their legs forward again after each stride.
Other studies suggest a fastest possible 100m sprint time of around 9.44s – just 0.14s faster than Usain Bolt’s current world record, set in 2009.
Despite these biological limits, there will never be a time when Olympic records are no longer broken, for one simple reason: the spectacle. Each event must adapt to give us the thrilling prospect of new records, or it’ll be replaced by other events that do.
This may be by adding handicaps or banning certain equipment, or it could be by using ever more accurate timing. Perhaps one day we’ll cheer on sprinters running in a wind tunnel against a 30km/h headwind, chasing records timed to microsecond precision.
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Luis trained as a zoologist, but now works as a science and technology educator. In his spare time he builds 3D-printed robots, in the hope that he will be spared when the revolution inevitably comes.