usain-bolt-record2-081609Following Usain Bolt’s devastating performances at the World Championships, there’s been more commentary on whether we’re reaching the limits of athletic performance. I blogged about this last year; the answer, in general, is that we are getting closer and closer to physical limits. In future, world records will increasingly be broken by physical “outliers” (such as Bolt or the American swimmer Michael Phelps), unless technology helps.

Bolt’s new world record shouldn’t be a surprise – analysts had already concluded that he would have broken 9.6 seconds at the Olympics had he not more or less stopped to celebrate. Nonetheless, research in 2007 by the French Sports Institute suggested that athletes were now reaching 99% of their potential (compared to three quarters a century ago). They thought there would be no new records after 2060. Mark Denny of Stanford University reckons the absolute human limit for the 100 metres in 9.48 seconds.

Looking for outliers

Hence the search for ‘outliers’ – people whose physical qualities create the potential for exceptional performance. Phelps, of course, is half man, half fish, with a huge armspan, a long back, and abnormally large feet, or flippers. Bolt, at 6’5″, combines a long stride with unusually rapid acceleration. Greg Whyte, of Liverpool John Moores University, a former Olympic competitor, explains it this way:

“Researchers in human performance will be looking for the outliers — others will call them freaks of nature, but I don’t like the term. These are people who are unusual, externally and internally, with unusually efficient metabolisms. The shorter events such as sprints particularly rely on the true outliers.”

Perhaps as a result, countires such as britain and Australia have started to look for outliers in body size as part of their high potential programmes. In endurance events, lung capacity might be the clue: the five-times Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain had a lung capacity almost twice the average.

Physiological potential is one thing, but it still takes a psychological outlier to turn that into championship winning performances. As Whyte says, “Becoming a world-beater involves a lot of hard, miserable work”.

Clamping down on technology

Technological innovation is the other route to improved performance, as the recent swimsuit controversy at the Rome championships has shown. Sporting federations, for the moment, seem sceptical allowing technology to improve performance. Swimming’s international governing body, FINA, has now banned the full-length bodysuits that made the record-breaking performances possible, though not the world records themselves. The cycling body the UCI, has ended , for the moment, technological gains in the competition for the one-hour record, while the paralympic South African athlete Oscar Pistorius has been prevented from competing in open athletics events in case his artificial legs create an artificial advantage.