Reading Passage 2
The Olympics: Faster, Higher, Stronger
But Will It Always Be That Way?
A: Since humankind began engaging in sporting competitions in an attempt to move faster, jump higher or to out-muscle one’s opponent, maybe even before the Greeks began recording results, the desire to be the best, to establish records, has driven the athlete. With each record, then, the target was set for the succession of athletes to follow to do their utmost to better the result, to establish their own mark. One record, indeed, often called a barrier, was the so-called ‘Four-Minute Mile’, when experts declared that the limits of endurance and ability meant that the four-minute mile would never be broken, and, indeed, the record had basically stood at four minutes ten seconds since the turn of the twentieth century. However, in 1954, in Oxford, England, Roger Bannister ran a mile in three minutes 59.4 seconds, breaking four minutes and beating the record that had stood for nearly a decade, and which, amazingly, was broken again only six weeks later.
The motto of the Olympic Games is ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’, but the question has long absorbed experts – sports scientists, doctors, journalists and researchers alike – as to what the limits to human athleticism are. The question is more often analyzed in terms of ‘are we at the limits of human athletic supremacy?’ and ‘if not, how soon will we be?’ From there, the question then becomes one of considering that if human endurance and ability have been reached, what next? Is it then a case of realising that it is not possible to push the boundaries, but of endeavouring to be the best in a particular competition? One researcher who believes we are now at this point is Geoffroy Berthelot, from Paris’ Institute for Biomedical Research and Sports Epidemiology, who, in 2008, stated that according to the statistical model developed at the institute’s ‘human species’ set-up, physiological frontiers will be reached within the next generation.
Other researchers agree. Dr. Mark Denny, from Stanford University in the United States, believes that the 100-metre race is practically at the limit of human capability. Dr. Denny has calculated the progress of the lowering of times for 100 years and, in conjunction with the maximum speed capable by humans under their own power, believes the record is just about now in place and we will not see another huge drop in time as we did in 2009, when the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt carved 0.11 seconds off his own existing record, which, in sprint terms, is a dramatic reduction. France’s Geoffroy Berthelot also points out that 23 out of 36 track-and-field events have not seen new records set since the early 1990s, and of the other thirteen events, only small movements have been recorded in new records.
Some sports and events, however, have seen, and continue to see, records tumbling and dramatic new times and figures being recorded. An analysis of these events, though, shows that other factors are at play, mostly centring around technology. Pole vaulting has witnessed many new records as the original bamboo poles were replaced by, first, aluminium, and then fibre-glass. The Barcelona Games in 1992 saw the introduction of the first ‘super-bike’, designed by engineers at the Lotus car company, which had a single-unit wheel structure instead of spokes, which, it was claimed, reduced air resistance, and the records backed it up. And then there are the controversial changes. The Beijing Olympics in 2008 had the new full-body swimsuits made of polyurethane, which compressed the muscles, thus reducing friction in the water, resulting in 25 new world records for those who wore the suits, which was the biggest jump in new times since Montreal’s 1976 Games, which, not surprisingly saw the then-largest increase in new records owing to swimmers being allowed to use goggles for the first time.
Interestingly, some researchers are not convinced that limits have been, or are about to be, reached. The common consensus among them is that athletes, and their trainers, are now turning to the one field not yet fully exploited in achieving the best athletic performance: science. Peter Weyand, of Southern Methodist University in the U.S., is looking at how athletes can pull out even more from their muscles with different exercise routines designed to maximise muscle performance, using mathematical formulas to track peak force and how and when it can be achieved. As well, Dr. Weyand is looking intently at the foot-to-ground ratio in running, seeing how different training methods may allow the most gain to be achieved in track events. Other areas researchers are investigating are in the oxygen and blood fields, ways to increase oxygen-carrying red blood cells to enhance and sustain muscle performance, and the relatively new field of gene therapy in the sporting context.
To the dismay of the sporting community, one area which always raises its head any time there is competition is the question of performance-enhancing drugs. Many sports, from cycling, weight-lifting and swimming to running and track, indeed, any aerobic-based sport, are beset with the problem of drugs. And there is the realisation that anti-doping regulations are abused, crippled with double-standards, ignored by some athletes and trainers, and, in some cases, the use of sports drugs is even condoned by national sports Federations, albeit on the quiet. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that certain forms of drugs, heavily regulated, should be accepted, thus allowing for better monitoring and care for the athlete. One researcher who is looking at this area is Scotland’s Andy Miah, a bioethicist, who has put forward the suggestion of a ‘World Pro-Doping Agency’, which would be tasked with ‘investing in safer forms of performance enhancement’.
One thing is certain. Athletes, their trainers, the various sports Federations, and, indeed, the public, will all be wanting to see a continued reduction in times, lengthening of distances, increases in weights and heights and more records. Will it be science, or technology, or human determination which sees the athlete, the competitor, continue to cause records to fall? Or will the day come when we are all watching the 100-metre dash being contested by genetically-modified sprinters, with enhanced lung power, super-muscles, and the 9-second barrier being broken?