After nearly 100 years of constant improvement, we seem to be entering a new phase in sports: Peak Olympics, when the steady march of human progress reaches its final, depressing plateau.
We’ve been spoiled by generations of athletes getting faster. But during the past several decades, progress has virtually come to a standstill in many sports. Athletes don’t really smash records anymore. They just squeak by them.
Researchers have found plateaus in shot put, high jump and the 800-meter run, and signs of plateaus in cycling, weightlifting and swimming. At the Winter Olympics, it’s found in speedskating.
"The sport is evolving to the point where time gaps between the top 10 finishers in each event are smaller," said Shane Domer, the sports science director at U.S. Speedskating. "We seem to be approaching the human limit."
There have been only a few record-breaking finishes in speedskating since 2005, and those records were made by the thinnest margins. Last year, the Russian speedskater Denis Yuskov set a record in the 1,500-meter race, shaving 0.02 seconds off the previous record, which had stood since 2009.
Spectators are used to steady progress. But this progress was largely a symptom of changes in nutrition and training throughout the 20th century. Healthier kids turned into taller, more athletic adults. Sports performance improved.
But, in the Western world, average height eventually stopped increasing. Without as much of a physical edge over previous generations, athletes found gains using a new weapon: technology. This is clear in speedskating, where bodysuits and skates play a major role in reducing drag and improving speed.
First, there was the clap skate, introduced in the mid 1980s and used widely by 1997. Its hinged blade maintains contact with the ice longer during each stride, resulting in a more powerful thrust. World records started falling after its wider adoption — sometimes two record-breaking runs in a single event.
Next came multi-fabric bodysuits, which reduced drag. A version introduced around 2002 cut finishing times by more than half a second in the 1,000-meter race, according to research by Len Brownlie of Simon Fraser University and Aerosports Research that was supported by Nike, which made the suit.
The next phase of speedskating bodysuits could come with new materials and 3-D printing, which is already being used to make track apparel with raised protrusions, called vortex generators, that produce "an incredible reduction in drag," according to Brownlie, who has consulted on sports apparel for Nike since the late 1990s.
There are some in the sports world who resist technology taking center stage. The ruling body of international bicycling, the Union Cycliste Internationale, in 2000 started requiring riders to use bikes similar to those from 1972 for its Hour Record race. The decision was criticized and the group jettisoned the requirement in 2014.
For many sports, the future involves this kind of negotiation, where athletes train for gains that seem increasingly out of reach, and technology becomes even more important.
But as for human performance itself, this may be as good as it gets.
© 2018 New York Times