How High? How Fast?
Begley, Sharon, Rogers, Adam, Newsweek
LET OTHERS SEEK THE EPITOME OF Olympic greatness in the Mercurian speed of Gwen Torrence, in the Odyssean lifts of German superheavy-weight Ronny Weller, in the nymphlike freestyle strokes of China's Li Jingyi. There is no question that, from the first round of field hockey bright and early Saturday morning to the men's handball final that closes the competition, the athletes of the world will be flesh-and-blood paeans to the heights (both kinds) that the human body can achieve. But to glimpse the purest embodiment of the athletic ideal, tear yourself away from NBC's marathon broadcasts. Cozy up, instead, with a volume of sports stats. See how not a single world record established before 1980--in any sport--still stands. See how winning times in the men's 100 meter, for instance, have plunged from Jackson Scholz's 10.6 seconds in 1920 to Jesse Owens's 10.3 in 1936, Jim Hines's 9.9 in 1968, Carl Lewis's 9.86 in 1991 and Leroy Burrell's 9.85 last year. Notice the long-jump records. Even Bob Beamon's 29-foot 2.5-inch wonder at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, which many experts said would stay on the books forever, fell before the quadriceps of Mike Powell in Tokyo in 1991. And Powell actually had some air to push through. Baron Pierre de Coubertin must be smiling down from Mount Olympus: when the Frenchman revived the Games of ancient Greece, he chose as a motto "Citius, altius, fortius"--"Swifter, higher, stronger."
OK but . . . forever? Look more closely at the march of winning times and record distances, of goldmedal weights and precedent-setting heights. The law of diminishing returns has set in. The world-record time in the women's 400-meter freestyle, for example, dropped more than two minutes--a full 33 percent--from 1921 (6:16.6) to 1976 (4:11.69). In the 20 years since, it has fallen just eight seconds, to Janet Evans's 4:03.85 at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. If you were to plot world records on graph paper, you would get curves that seem to approach a limit asymptotically, coming tantalizingly closer but never quite reaching it. It is as if the curves were little south-pole magnets and the h"t an imposing bar of north polarity. But what is that limit? For the men's 100, is it 9.7 seconds or 9.4? Is the limit for the mile (where the world record is now 3:44.39) 3:40 or 3:30? Will anyone ever clean and jerk more than 1,020 pounds?
The pull of gravity against the runners and jumpers and weight lifters will not lessen. Nor will the density and viscosity of water (773 and 55 times greater than air's, respectively) impeding the swimmers. Only two variables can make mortals swifter, higher, stronger. One is equipment. In the pole vault, for instance, the world record edged up just two inches between 1942 and 1960 and seemed stuck around 16 feet. But when rigid steel poles gave way to springy aluminum, fiberglass and graphite composites in 1963, the record catapulted two feet in three years and is now 20 feet 1.75 inches. Well into the 1950s, tracks were made of cinders; the cinders became sticky and slowed the runners' long-spiked shoes. The new synthetic tracks make a difference of about one second per quarter mile. Shorter studs cut another couple of seconds from the mile. If these innovations had been available earlier, Glenn Cunningham, who set a world record in the mile of 4:06.8 in 1934, might have beaten Britain's Roger Bannister past the four-minute barrier by 20 years. The latest technology promising to improve performance by a quantum leap is a new ultrathin bicycle with a solid, not spoked, rear wheel (page 30); it could shave several seconds off times.
The other variable is the human body. With the realization that athletic achievement is bumping against a ceiling, sports scientists are mapping the body's outer limits, trying to understand where improvement is still possible and what holds it back. Much of the work is preliminary. Physiologists have limiting factors, but have yet to throw them all into a computer and come up with a numerical prediction that, for instance, no human will ever long-jump 30 feet. …