It's long been a pet theory of mine that athletics will one day come to an end - or at least that people breaking world records will come to an end, which I concede is a rather different thing. At some point, we'll just run up against the limits of our biology; nobody is ever going to run the 800 metres in one second, or throw a javelin six miles. Well not until we're all cyberbeings but that would be cheating. So I'm intrigued by this fascinating report, which suggests we're pretty much at the end times already:
In the sports that best measure athleticism — track and field, mostly — athletic performance has peaked. The studies show the steady progress of athletic achievement through the first half of the 20th century, and into the latter half, and always the world-record times fall. Then, suddenly, achievement flatlines. These days, athletes’ best sprints, best jumps, best throws — many of them happened years ago, sometimes a generation ago.
We’re reaching our biological limits,” said Geoffroy Berthelot, one of the coauthors of both studies and a research specialist at the Institute for Biomedical Research and Sports Epidemiology in Paris. “We made major performance increases in the last century. And now it is very hard.”
Berthelot speaks with the bemused detachment of a French existentialist. What he predicts for the future of sport is just as indifferent, especially for the people who enjoy it: a great stagnation, reaching every event where singular athleticism is celebrated, for the rest of fans’ lives. And yet reading Berthelot’s work is not grim, not necessarily anyway. It is oddly absorbing. The implicit question that his work poses is larger than track and field, or swimming, or even sport itself. Do we dare to acknowledge our limitations? And what happens once we do?
What everyone agrees is that Usain Bolt is a freakish exception to all the statistical rules. His records may stand forever.