In A Nutshell
The number of world records being broken in athletics has been in decline since the end of the 20th century. Cheating scandals have been on the rise. The International Swimming Federation banned high-performance swimsuits as an unfair advantage. These things may all have a common cause: An exhaustive analysis suggests that humans may have reached the peak of athletic performance. Some have argued that, short of using drugs or new technology, humans won’t get any better than we are now. We may have broken almost all the records we can break.
The Whole Bushel
Pure athletic sports, such as track and field, or swimming, have a key difference from team sports such as football. The achievements of those on the track or in the swimming lanes are neatly measured and can be compared to all those that came before. The time it takes you to run 100 meters is about you, whereas the points you score on a hockey rink or baseball field are just as much about your teammates and opponents. Athletics, then, provides a clearer window into what humans can naturally accomplish.
Sports scientists have used this feature of athletics to analyze what humans may be capable of, and the conclusion of many is that humanity has all but reached its pinnacle. French researcher Geoffroy Berthelot published a study claiming that the height of record-breaking was hit 1988, noting that performance in many areas has hit a plateau since the start of the 1990s. Over half of events haven’t seen an improved time since 1993. By 2027, he thinks there will be no breakable records left. The human body can only naturally go so fast or strong, and we’re at that point.
In the past, limits were caused by poor nutrition, inefficient technique and suboptimal training. These issues have been ironed out over the last 60 years among professional athletes, bringing everyone to the ceiling. And there is another elephant in the room, which has recently stampeded noisily into the open in many sports—doping. Lance Armstrong is a go-to example of records set through unnatural means. Improved testing (and perhaps sports culture) is making this less possible than it was 20 years ago, so many of today’s competitors are at a disadvantage.
Michael Phelps set seven world records at Beijing 2008 wearing a high-tech swimsuit. This technology has now been banned, leaving future swimmers at a disadvantage. Berthelot believes his records may be unbreakable without the aid of similar technology.
Other studies from scientists in the UK and Italy have reached the same conclusion about human sporting ability. If that is the case, might athletes look for means outside of their own talent to get ahead? Biomedical scientist Giuseppe Lippi thinks so, concluding in his paper, “Future limits to athletic performance will be determined less and less by the innate physiology of the athlete, and more and more by scientific and technological advances and by the still-evolving judgment on where to draw the line between what is ‘natural’ and what is artificially enhanced.”