YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Have athletes done all they can?

Some scientists say so, and that the only way to achieve new performance records is through technology -- or cheating.

February 17, 2010|Shari Roan

It merited only a few paragraphs inside newspaper sports sections. Crystal Cox, a member of the gold-medal-winning U.S. women's 1,600-meter relay team in the 2004 Athens Olympics, had admitted to using a performance-enhancing drug. Cox would lose her medal and be banned from competition for four years.

On the surface, the announcement last month seemed just another episode of sports doping and its sad consequences. But to many sports scientists, the news was evidence of a broader trend. They believe that human athletic performance has peaked, and only cheating or technological advances will result in a rash of new world records.

A French researcher who analyzed a century's worth of world records concluded in a recent paper that the peak of athletic achievement was reached in 1988. Eleven world records were broken that year in track and field. Seven of them still stand.

That paper and others published in the last two years suggest that the Olympic motto -- Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger) -- is becoming an anachronism.

"We saw a strong evolution of performance during the past century," says study author Geoffroy Berthelot, a researcher at INSEP, an internationally respected school and research institute for athletes in Paris. "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."

In track and field, Berthelot found, peak times have not improved in 64% of events since 1993. In swimming, performances stagnated in 47% of events after 1990, rising again around 2000 when new high-tech swimsuits proven to improve performance were introduced.

Achievement appears to have plateaued throughout the sports world. Records in winter sports -- which are, in general, younger than many summer sports -- are still on the rise, but in ever-smaller increments, says Carl Foster, director of the human performance laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, and past president of the American College of Sports Medicine.

"World records are indeed flattening," he says. "The likelihood that a world record occurs is becoming less and less."

The prospect that humans have given all they've got is generating some discomfort among elite athletes, trainers, researchers and sports federation officials, as evidenced by the furious interest in training methods and nutritional enhancements that may squeeze an extra hundredth of a second off a performance.

Some sports scientists predict a greater reliance on equipment or waning public interest in individual events. Others worry about heightened pressure to cheat.

"What happens when world records cease to be achieved on a regular basis?" says Conrad Earnest, director of exercise biology at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., a leading science research organization. "I think the public thinks that athletes will get better and better. That's why they tune in to watch. I don't know if people realize that athletes can't keep improving at the rates that they have been."


Using history as his guide, Berthelot doesn't expect a banner Winter Olympics. His study, published in January in the journal PLoS One, is an exhaustive analysis of track and field and swimming world records over the last 109 years. It reported that athletic prowess peaked in 1943 and again in 1958, 1968 and 1988, correlating with periods of international conflict or economic wealth that stirred competitive juices.

Italian researcher Giuseppe Lippi has also concluded that human athleticism has reached its apogee. An associate professor in morphological-biomedical sciences at the University of Verona, Lippi analyzed world records ratified by the International Assn. of Athletics Federations from 1900 to 2007 in nine sports disciplines. He found that "improvement has essentially stopped or reached a plateau in several specialties."

Mark Denny, a marine sciences and biomechanics professor at Stanford, says athletic achievement is constrained by basic biomechanics. According to his statistical models, the maximum attainable speed for male sprinters is only a few percentage points greater than what has already been observed. Women have already reached their top speed, by his calculations.

Further, the global portrait of athletics is changing.

In the last century, Foster says, participants from many parts of the world have begun to compete. That makes it easier to find what researchers call "extreme outliers," people blessed with the right genetics and right circumstances to excel.

And elite athletes have squeezed every ounce of advantage from their training regimens. Most devote themselves to a single sport and utilize a team of trainers and coaches in pursuit of a competitive edge.

"Everyone in Vancouver is pretty much a full-time athlete," Foster said. "Once you become a full-time athlete, the body only does so much."

Los Angeles Times Articles