Weird news out of Rio this week: It appears that human being are maxing out as a species. Well, kind of: Julian Huguet looks into the matter of athletic world records in today's DNews dispatch.
Researchers have been noticing an interesting trend for a while now: Despite all those Olympic headlines, world records are actually getting harder to break. With more athletes participating in more sports worldwide, more official numbers are going on the books -- and some crazy math is getting involved.
According to a branch of mathematics called extreme-value statistics, the rate that athletes set new records slows as the sample size grows. More athletes competing means a better chance that an extreme outlier is in the bunch. In recent decades, we have had so many elite athletes competing in official events that the best performers have already been clocked.
So is there a point where the human body can simply do no better? It's a very good question, and one that scientists love to dig into. Naturally, the answer depends on the activity or sport.
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Let's examine that most basic of athletic endeavors: Running real fast. One recent study looked carefully at all the component parts of a sprinter's stride and concluded that the human body can hypothetically endure forces that would propel a runner 60 kilometers per hour. By comparison, Jamaica's Usain Bolt, manages a mere 45 kph. Slacker.
Of course, that's just one study and one assessment of the situation. Another study went at the question from a different angle and compared historical trends of human runners with those of thoroughbred dogs and horses. That research suggests that best possible time for the 100-meter dash is 9.48 seconds -- just 0.1 seconds faster than Bolt's current record.
Then there is the matter of technology. Constantly improving equipment and training techniques can propel athletes to new heights, quite literally. Pole vaulters broke a long list of records when they swapped out their aluminum poles for fiberglass. Similar upgrades have helped cyclists and swimmers.
Check out Julian's report for more details on the technological aspects of elite athleticism, including some disquieting speculation on the topic of genetically-engineered athletes. Records are made to be broken, after all.
-- Glenn McDonald
Scientific American: Have We Reached The Athletic Limits Of The Human Body?
Gizmodo: Everything You Need To Know About CRISPR, The New Tool That Edits DNA
LiveScience: The Human Race: Will We Keep Breaking Running Records?