Will We Ever Stop Breaking World Records?

Will We Ever Stop Breaking World Records?

If you want to break a world record, it might
be easier to just invent your own sport. Hello winners, Julian here for DNews. It’s that time again for the quadrennial
summer games. Top athletes from around the world have gathered
in Rio to compete for gold. And while a gold medal would prove they are
the current best, a world record would prove they are the best ever. There’s just one problem: world records
are getting harder to break. For example, in July 2016, Kendra Harrison
of the United States broke a record for the 100m hurdles that had stood for 28 years. The longer a sport’s been around, the harder
the records are to break. Men have been running marathons since the modern games were revived
in 1896, and since 1984 the world record has been trimmed down by only 5 minutes. Women on the other hand couldn’t compete
in marathons until 1984, and since then they’ve lopped 10 minutes off the world record time. The difference can be explained by a branch
of mathematics called extreme-value statistics, which seeks to predict the likelihood of large
deviations from the mean. According to extreme-value statistics, over
time the rate athletes set new records slows as the sample size grows. More athletes competing means an extreme outlier
is probably in the bunch, so after over a hundred years some events like track-and-field
have probably seen the best athletes possible. Take Great Britain’s Colin Jackson, holder
for the 60 meter hurdles record since 1994. He has an abundance of super-fast twitch muscles. These muscles turn glucose into bursts of
speed and are ideal for sprinters. Jackson’s muscles were 25% super-fast twitch,
putting him in the top 2% of the population. Jackson and athletes like him have won the
genetic lottery, but surely there must be a point when the human body can do no better. Some scientists, like Peter Weyand of Southern
Methodist University, have attempted to figure out where that limit is and concluded that
the human body can handle forces that would propel a sprinter to 60 kilometers per hour. By comparison the fastest sprinter yet, Jamaica’s
Usain Bolt, can only manage a measly 45 kilometers per hour. So Weyand is pretty optimistic, but researcher
Mark Denny out of Stanford hasn’t set the bar as high. Denny compared the historical trends of human
racers to two species purpose bred for speed -dogs and thoroughbred horses- and assuming
we follow the same trends as these two animals, he concluded that the best possible time for
the 100m dash is 9.48 seconds, just 0.1 seconds quicker than Bolt’s current record. Athletes don’t exist in a vacuum though,
and a lot more goes into making a world record than raw athletic ability. Training techniques and equipment play a huge
role, and this is where advances in science can propel athletes to new heights. Like when pole vaulters swapped out their
aluminum poles for fiberglass ones, they broke more records than a monkey in a music store. The same happened when cyclists jumped onto
carbon fiber bikes, or when swimmers compressed themselves into ultra-hydrodynamic body suits
in Beijing in 2008. 21 of the 22 records set in swimming that
year were attributed to the body suit, and they were subsequently banned for having too
much of an impact. Even if they’re not wearing it, technology
helps athletes. Swimmers train using motion capture to analyze
their movements, and their techniques are tweaked to get the most out of their bodies. Advances in nutrition and training have taken
the best natural athletes of our species and turned them into well-fed machines. Of course it’s possible to abuse advances
in science to gain an unfair edge, like with blood doping or steroid use. There’s even talk of using CRISPR to genetically
engineer top tier competitors. With human ability as close to its maximum
as it’s likely to get, breaking world records may come down to where we draw the line on
science and technology. Sometimes the planets align and amazing sports
moments happen. Other times the ref totally robs you. Do you think technological advances like the
super swimsuit are fair?


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