A FUNNY THING HAPPENED on the way to the London Olympics: Athletes stopped breaking world records. Remember the run-up to Beijing in 2008, when the sports world was abuzz over how many marks Michael Phelps would smash? He set seven world records there but hasn’t bested a global time since 2009. The Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010 provided plenty of drama but few record-shattering wins — Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo’s highest-ever score in pairs figure skating wasn’t exactly a Bob Beamon moment. World records are now decades old in classic men’s Olympic sports such as the long jump (1991), shot put (1990) and discus throw (1986).
Many scientists have concluded from recent events that athletic performance is hitting a wall. Geoffroy Berthelot of INSEP, a sports research institute in Paris, looked at competitions from 1896 to 2007 and found that peak scores stopped improving in 64 percent of track and field events after 1993. Giuseppe Lippi of the University of Verona examined nine Olympic sports from 1900 to 2007 and found similar results. “Improvement has substantially stopped or reached a plateau in several specialities,” he wrote. Berthelot has predicted that the “human species’ physiological frontiers will be reached” in most sports around 2027.
Yet his conclusion is more measured:
But what these researchers are detecting isn’t some final biological frontier but rather a lull in technological enhancement. Athletes have always relied on science to push the bounds of achievement. Olympic athletes’ great stagnation, then, is really a temporary halt in innovation.