Once upon a time, there were barriers--a seven-foot high jump, the four-minute mile, the 60-foot shot put.
But between 1954 and '56, those standards of human performance went the way of the Studebaker.
Charlie Dumas jumped seven feet, Roger Bannister ran the mile in 3:59.4 and Parry O'Brien put the shot 60 feet 5 1/4 inches.
So, new boundaries were established.
In high jumping, that meant only one thing--eight feet. Ninety-six inches. Two hundred, forty-four centimeters.
For 33 years that height represented the other side of sport. To cross it would be going beyond the frontier.
Javier Sotomayor, a lanky Cuban high jumper, understood these ramifications when he examined the crossbar at the high jump pit one still night last August in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
He decided his time had come, and asked officials to raise the bar to eight feet.
Then, carefully, Sotomayor passed the boundary, clearing just a hair above that magical standard at the Caribbean Zone Track and Field Championships.
As he returned through the ozone layer toward Earth, plunging ever so lightly into the foam pit, another time-worn mark had disappeared into thin air.
"That's probably the last barrier," Liston Bochette, a Puerto Rican decathlete, told reporters. "No one in the foreseeable future is going to put it at nine feet. I have to feel like I not only saw a record, I saw the beginning of the end."
Of course, that's what they said after Dumas, Bannister and O'Brien.
Sotomayor's historic breakthrough might seem to be close to the limit of human potential, but let's not, ahem, jump to conclusions.
As we approach the year 2000, performance may know no bounds.
And as science continues to aid human development, who knows?
Many who do not but who venture a guess think the 1990s will bring a 30-foot long jump, a 20-foot pole vault, a 110-m.p.h. fastball. Salaries and ticket prices are not the only elements about to escalate.
Dwight Stones, formerly a U.S. Olympic high jumper, 10 years ago predicted an eight-foot high jump by the end of the decade. Sotomayor made it with four months to spare.
Stones, however, does not foresee a nine-foot jump for another 45 years. He said that even chipping away at the next 12 inches will be slow going.
"Unless they allow two-foot takeoffs from spring floors, there is not a more efficient way to get over the bar than the Fosbury Flop," Stones said.
In other words, do not expect dramatic gains in jumping. He predicts about a 2 1/2-inch improvement over the next 10 years.
Stones said that after 20 years of refining the Fosbury Flop--the technique of jumping over the bar back-first--athletes are close to their potential. He said it will take athletes at least 6 feet 7 inches tall and with outstanding form to challenge nine feet.
As humans become bigger, stronger and better prepared, what is stopping them from improving?
"For every result, there is still room to improve, but not much," said Gideon Ariel, a pioneer in sports biomechanics. "There is some limit people get into. Nobody knows, but there is some biomechanic limit where there will be injuries."
Ariel, formerly an Olympic discus thrower for Israel, said his research indicates about a 10% improvement in all motion-oriented events. The melding of technology with athlete should prove to be the difference, he said.
Lewis A. Yoccum, director of the biomechanics laboratory at Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood, has an even more optimistic vision of the future.
"Potential is limitless," he said of the human body. "We haven't even started to scratch the surface of what is there. Yes, there is a finite level but we haven't gotten close to what that can be."
Track and field is useful in monitoring this level because athletes are measured in concrete values of time, distance and height. Hitting a tennis ball or baseball, catching a football or stopping a puck on ice are a bit more esoteric.
Perhaps the nine-foot high jump is too much to hope for, but Stones says the 30-foot long jump and 20-foot pole vault should have been achieved in the '80s, and will be accomplished sometime in the '90s.
"We need a guy with Carl Lewis' speed and excellent technical skills to do it," Stones said of the long jump. "It might take another five years."
The long jump has been one of sport's most interesting phenomena. In 1968, Bob Beamon jumped 29-2 1/2 at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, bypassing 28 feet altogether. By advancing the distance to such an extent, some suggest Beamon stunted the event's growth.
"He set the long jump back 20 years," said Jon Hendershott of Track & Field News, who added that with the right combination of speed and strength the distance can go to 31 feet.
Of the 20-foot pole vault, Stones said the Soviet Union's Sergei Bubka should have cleared the height three years ago. Stones expects to see a 20-footer by the 1991 World track and field championships.
Bubka, who holds the world outdoor record at 19 feet 10 1/2 inches, may not be the first to reach 20 feet.