Have track and field performances peaked?

by on January 24, 2011 at 7:16 am in Books, Sports | Permalink

I don't know much about track and field, but I found this article interesting, excerpt:

Today 64 percent of track and field world records have stood since 1993. One world record, the women’s 1,500 meters, hasn’t been broken since 1980. When Berthelot published his study last year in the online journal PLoS One, he made the simple but bold argument that athletic performance had peaked. On the whole, Berthelot said, the pinnacle of athletic achievement was achieved around 1988. We’ve been watching a virtual stasis ever since.

It seems unlikely to me that we have reached a true peak, rather a temporary plateau with slower-than-average growth, until the next breakthrough in training, technique, genetic manipulation, or whatever.  Does that sound familiar?

Indy January 24, 2011 at 3:42 am

Stop! Please Stop! Or, at least allow me to collaborate with you the expansion of your "single" into a full-fledged book. I don't have the time I need right now to work on it, and you're going to snatch my niche – you've already gone half the way there. Your life is good, you have a lot of books already, a good position, etc. Enjoy yourself with more travel and in different intellectual directions, take a break, relax, and spend more time with your family. Write more about music or something. Spread the wealth, homie!

And before you independently start using it too, I hereby call "dibs" on the term "Plateaupia".

Jeff J January 24, 2011 at 3:54 am

It's hard to believe that we're "reaching our biological limits" when Usain Bolt just demolished the record in the highest profile, highest stakes T&F event – the men's 100m. If we were hitting our limits, one would think we would do so first in this event. Berthelot says, “Bolt is a very particular case.” Other very particular cases will appear in other T&F events.

This is a great piece on Bolt.

mike January 24, 2011 at 4:16 am

A lot of this is steroids/doping. That women's records like the 1500 are holding longer is expected as women steroids get more benefit on from testosterone than men because women start with less.

There is a case to made that technical improvements make breakthroughs and then plateau. Having said that, I wouldn't trust an article that doesn't mention performance enhancing drugs. There is a passing mention near the end about Barry Bonds and it is not even clear if it is about steroids. It seems a rather lazy article.

Finch January 24, 2011 at 5:30 am

This:

> What peaked in the late 1980s was the unpunished use of performance
> enhancing drugs.

Performance enhancing drugs are still widespread, but it's now an arms race between detection and use. The really effective low-side-effect stuff is too easy to detect.

We really should let athletes take the gloves off and try. It's not like we get upset about the other major sacrifices they make. And if you're really worried about the health effects of, for example, steroids, then test for the health markers for hearts and livers, not the steroids themselves.

GU January 24, 2011 at 6:06 am

Maybe there's a peak/plateau in track & field, but I see the athletes in team sports steadily improving. Bigger, faster, and stronger. Watch the "Superbowl Shuffle" performed by the 1985 Chicago Bears. Notice how small the players were compared to today's players (and also note that most are slower than today's players, at their respective positions at least).

Finch January 24, 2011 at 6:26 am

> Maybe there's a peak/plateau in track & field, but I see the athletes in team
> sports steadily improving. Bigger, faster, and stronger.
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704
"Is the NFL Telegraphing Drug Tests? In Some Cases, Players Are Given a Day's Notice Before a Test; Experts Call it 'Concerning'"

There's an element of Kabuki theater in all this. It needs to look like there's decent testing, but nobody really wants to watch 200 lb linebackers with 10 percent bodyfat and wide receivers with 5 second 40-yard-dash times.

Ernie January 24, 2011 at 8:13 am

I assume by "peak" performance, people mean for the currently existing set of genes in the human population.

Isn't it likely that there are rare but beneficial genes for characteristics related to track and field spread through all human populations? Until there is some probability that people with at least a chance of embodying them all exist, I don't think it's reasonable to say we have reached the limit. Associative mating among track & field runners will surely produce a next generation of even better atheletes… and if it's cross borders, all the better.

Kevin Postlewaite January 24, 2011 at 9:24 am

I'm not sure that one can draw conclusions from one or two sports: maybe the truly athletically gifted are choosing to go into different sports today than they were decades ago.

David January 24, 2011 at 9:31 am

Is my math wrong? http://www.trackandfieldnews.com/tfn/records/recohttp://www.trackandfieldnews.com/tfn/records/reco

Where is he getting 64% of records have stood since 1993?

Bill Harshaw January 24, 2011 at 10:04 am

Now I remember the 4-minute mile, the 60 foot shot put, and the 15 (or 16?) foot pole vault; all of which were then deemed to be at the outer limits of athletic performance. Of course athletes were then deemed to be "amateurs".

Newt January 24, 2011 at 11:01 am

F:"There's an element of Kabuki theater in all this. It needs to look like there's decent testing, but nobody really wants to watch 200 lb linebackers with 10 percent bodyfat and wide receivers with 5 second 40-yard-dash times."

I do. Football was better in the early 1980s. I'd much rather see Joe Montana and Walter Peyton again than these steroid clowns we've got today.

Finch January 24, 2011 at 12:59 pm

> I do. Football was better in the early 1980s. I'd much rather see Joe Montana
> and Walter Peyton again than these steroid clowns we've got today.

I'm not sure about football. Hockey, though, was surely better with smaller players.

Of course in the 80s they were all on coke, so although they were smaller, they were faster…

bob tollison January 25, 2011 at 2:08 am

Try swimming where a record is broken weekly. or so it seems.

Steve Sailer January 25, 2011 at 9:52 am

We know that the best phenotype for the men's 100 meter dash is close to 100% pure West African ancestry, yet most of the top sprinters over the last generation have been from the tens of millions in the West African diaspora, not the hundreds of millions in West Africa itself. If West Africans got healthier, better fed, better educated, and better organized, there would be a lot more superfast sprinters than there are today.

Ricardo January 25, 2011 at 9:31 pm

If that was the case, one would think we would see more of it well before now. It's much more likely in my experience to see children of athletes who are anywhere from good to gifted, but who never match the performance of their parents, much less surpass them, either in absolute or relative terms.

That's just mean reversion (assuming genes are the dominant factor). If both parents are outliers, their children won't necessarily be outliers — we would just expect them to be better than average. Take lots of athletic couples and have them give birth to thousands of babies (with the better athletes having more children), those children should be pretty good athletes when they grow up. A couple may even reach elite levels of performance. If the ones with elite levels of performance consistently have more babies, the group average will slowly increase across generations.

As Richard Dawkins puts it, it works for horses and there is no scientific reason to think it wouldn't also work for humans.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: