Human Athletic Ability Has Reached Its Natural Peak

“The Olympics have become a proving ground for scientists, chemists and unethical doctors” —Dr. Robert Voy, former director of drug testing for the U.S. Olympic Committee

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.”

Show Me The Proof

Phys Org: Scientific research indicates human athletic performance has peaked
Boston Magazine: Peaked performance

  • Exiled Phoenix

    I never understood why drugs aren’t allowed in sports. Screw a clean plager!! I want to see how far people are willing to go for Victory!!

    • inconspicuous detective

      watch gattica. same reason, different method.

      • Exiled Phoenix

        Seen it, but it isn’t the same reason.

        • inconspicuous detective

          well then i’d hafta ask: why do you believe an uneven playingfield should be ok? i mean no, you didn’t say *everyone* must take steroids, but you gotta know that the most wealthy or best player(s) would get the highest quality stuff first, and give themselves a leg up on everyone else. i’d rather (personally) see the game played fairly without a cheat way to get to peak performance.

          • Exiled Phoenix

            While agreed the top players would get the best drugs first, they would share with their team to win. So what if players use drugs. The job of an athlete is to give the fans the best show possible! I figure if they are willing to risk their bodies and health…. Let them.

          • inconspicuous detective

            personally i’d rather see people perform with natural talent only. being gifted becomes pointless when the players all can exceed what you can do as a normal human.

          • Exiled Phoenix

            You still have to have the skills for drugs to help. If you can’t play at a superior level to begin with, the drugs may enhance your abilities, but not to the point they would assist a gifted athlete.

          • inconspicuous detective

            you make a fair point, however they can make someone who is a “good” athlete a “great” athlete. consider this: even a gifted athlete has a peak. there are different genes involved. banned substances are a way to compensate for a weakness — not to equal the strength of an opponent. for that reason, making everything equal when it’s not, i think they should remain banned. only those who work hardest and are naturally gifted should be able to compete against their peers.

          • Exiled Phoenix

            You have some good points, and for now it seems league rules favor your opinion.
            You never know though, one day that may change.
            Good debating with you.

          • inconspicuous detective

            quite possibly. and good discussion as well.

  • Errkism

    These will still never be as watchable as baseball, or your preferred sport. I don’t see the interest in watching someone swim/run. I mean good for them for being that physically fit and being able to do that, but it’s not entertaining by any means.

  • UN

    what about usain bolt makes a new record on every occasion

  • chairde

    We breed athletes don’t we. African Americans were selected for endurance and strength by slavers and because of Jim Crow laws were only allowed to marry other blacks after the time of slavery. The results are seen in the track and field events in the Olympics and in professional sports. Also in the swimming events it is rare to see a top black swimmer. Why? Because the body type for a swimmer is different than the body type of a sprinter. White Americans and the Aussies seem to have the necessary body type for that sport. Is this racial or just factual?