The Great Olympic stagnation?

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.

That is from Peter Keating, here is more.  For the pointer I thank Allison Kasic.


Admit it, you found this article because you have a "great stagnation" search setup on google, dont you?

Zing! But also probably true...

Mood affiliation situation?

There were significant improvements in anabolic steroid usage from the 1960's through the 1980's. A major technological stagnation resulted from the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and its sports oriented medical establishment. Now everyone is clean. (Ha!)

Why the 'Ha!'? Your conclusion that records aren't being broken because athletes are now clean does follow from your premise.

For endurance athletes, EPO was a major breakthrough. Now that reliable tests exist for it, athletes must be more careful in how they use it, which has limited its beneficial effects on performance. What we need is a new, harder to detect blood booster to push performance to the next level. Thankfully, we still have autologous transfusions, but even those are sometimes detectable.

Also The Clear (versions 1 and 2) --a undetectable steroid-- were in existence in Sydney and Athens, but a test to detect them was developed shortly thereafter. Possibly true for others like The Cream etc. I think the doping scientists are 'behind the curve' temporarily.

We've experienced enormous innovation in sport. These breakthroughs can be seen in drug detection technology. It reminds me of the innovations of microbe genetics in combat with big pharma.

At some point might we have two versions of sports competitions: a "clean" and a "drug-enhanced", I wonder?

Think of it from a simple cost-benefit basis. The benefit is winning. What will I do to win? There will always be cheaters willing to cheat. Athletes are more risk-taking by nature, and this includes their behavior with drug enhanced performance. No "clean" version of sport will ever be truly clean any more. The testers will always be behind the curve with the dopers - again a (now) basis analysis will show this - for competitive advantage this time. The best we can hope for is to limit the damage that dopers do.

On the flip side, just allowing doping to occur, because of the risk taking nature of the athletes, some will always push doping to its ultimate limit - death.

We already do in some sports, such as weight lifting and power lifting. As well as "sports" like body building.
There are "tested" "non-tested" and "not very well tested" competitions.

Wired has an article on the technology that's being used to improve the performance of Olympic athletes. The amount of research and effort needed to improve performance is impressive.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the role of performance-enhancing drugs and whether they helped set records in a number of track and field events that can never be beaten now that we have stepped up prevention measures.

I was going to ask, when did they start serious testing for steroids, around the same time that records stopped being broken?

Lots of athletes still use anabolic steroids, including ones for which tests exist, as Victor Conte's letter to Dwain Chambers makes clear. These people are rarely caught, because the steroids are taken during times when athletes are unlikely to be tested, athletes are able to successfully dodge tests, and the most used steroids clear the system quickly. The testing regime makes the athletes' work harder and slows progress, but it does not change the fact competitive athletes dope. No competitive sports are clean.

That's definitely true in weightlifting. That's why they restructured the weight classes. It conveniently cleared the record book.

Similar story from Swimming too. Some of the cutting edge high buoyancy swimwear that was legal in the last Olympics isn't any more.

There is no stagnation in swimming. The polyurethane suits were only allowed in 2008 and 2009 and most records from before 2008 have been broken since 2009.

TC likes stream of thought...good for us we can catch him like this: Full Body Swimsuit Now Banned for Swimmers - ABC News - Jan 04, 2010 · The full body swimsuit made famous by Michael Phelps and other Beijing Olympians in 2008 won't be seen on anywhere on deck this year

That's from Peter Keating? LOL Is he glad that people stopped breaking records, since "society doesn't want that"?

The other day I saw some of the UK national junior swimming championships. It wasn't well advertised or especially well-attended; I was just in the sports centre at the right time for a different reason. There were a bunch of 16 year olds routinely posting times that would have beaten the world record in 1975-1980 or so, which I thought was quite striking. I don't know if that's common in other sports.

U.S. high school running records for short distance events (1500 meters and below) are equivalent to world records in the 1960s. For middle and long distance events, they are equivalent to the records from the 1950s. I guess that swimming isn't particularly competitive given that one man can win medals in 5 different individual events. In the running sports, this is impossible now. But, yeah, there are some fast high schoolers out there. Some of them may even be clean.

I hardly think that this is a result of swimming "not being particularly competitive". Swimming is hugely competitive, and has an excellent participation base from a young age - so there are plenty of young athletes looking to beat each other. In some geographic areas it is more likely for a youngster to go into swimming than running.

Look instead to the amount that giftedness or other factors makes a difference in the final result.

" In some geographic areas it is more likely for a youngster to go into swimming than running"

Where, Polynesia? Everyone runs. Everyone figures out whether they're fast or not.

If you got a medal, you did not win it. The gouvernement won it.

I would think that scientific training techniques (targeted weight lifting, fitness machines, etc.) led to a good deal of the gains over time.

There is one thing I don't get about the tone of this piece. I don't care how many drugs you take, there is only so fast someone can physically run or swim. Were athletes supposed to keep getting faster or stronger to the point where they were going so fast that spectators couldn't see the races?

I understand intuitively what you're saying. As sprinters (for example in the 100 meters) approach the zero bound, there is a smaller and smaller opportunity for improvement.

But, I also can't help thinking, people can continually get bigger and stronger, so incremental gains can still be made.

I don't know how to reconcile the two thoughts.

Reminds me of Xeno's paradox. If every improvement is incrementally smaller you'l never cross a certain bound.

I do not think we have even been close to seeing how much a person can improve performance using modern drug-enhancement techniques - I will venture to say in ANY sport or event. Steroids have improved, EPO has improved, now we have AICAR. And that doesn't even begin to cover the range of vectors available.
Where would it end? I do not know. I see American football rife with steroid use - as is MMA. But these people are doing it mostly from a self-managed program. Physicians who were attempting to see "how far can we go" and enhance the human body have mostly been shut out of actively and scientifically pursuing such experiments on human beings. So, I don't think we know "how far can we go". I don't think we want to know - the ultimate limit is the death of the athlete as a result of the enhancement or the effort.

We know that many mammals, with physiology not that different from ours, are capable of times 100% or 200% better than the current human records.
Therefore there aren't any basic biological reasons that a human shaped creature can't keep improving way past current standards.
When athletes start reaching cheetah times, then we'd have reason to think "well maybe bone and muscle just can't go any faster than that".

The population of possible athletes stopped growing as quickly in rich countries.
This means we have fewer outliers in the distribution.

I mean this means we have slower growth of people in the right side of the tail.

The main reason for the slowdown in swimming world records is the rule banning the high tech swimsuits. I suggest you load your brain before shooting off your mouth about things you obviously know little about and did not research.

What about blades? Children with great athletic potential will "accidentally" lose limbs to lawnmowers and qualify for special exemptions to compete. Thus will dawn a great golden age of bionic athletes.

And if you demand an asterisk by their names, it's probably because you hate the differently abled. You disgust me.

You used to read articles in prestigious scientific journals about how women runners would soon catch up to men's runner in speed, because of the tremendous improvements in women's times up through the 1988 Olympics. Yet, as I pointed out in a 1997 article in National Review, women's track progress largely halted after 1988, or regressed, with the collapse of the East Germany cheating complex and the institution of better drug testing:

Since then, it's been a low-grade war between cheaters and authorities. I suspect that the fact that Marion Jones spent the 2008 Summer Olympics in prison discouraged the American team from pushing the envelope too hard, whereas the Jamaican team seem to revel in their freedom.

Explain Flo-Jo setting the records and then passing away from heart failure. :).

How come the Cheating Complex didn't target men? Or were men's records regressing too?

Steroids are male hormones, so a smaller, less-detectable amount does more for women than for men. Thus, Ben Johnson, who was so 'roided up when he set the 100m world record at the 1988 Olympics that the whites of his eyes had turned yellow, got caught by the primitive drug-testing at the 1988 Olympics but Flo-Jo didn't.

Similarly, the East German chemists could create female sprint champs in their labs, but they couldn't buy a medal in the men's sprints.

That makes sense. I hadn't thought of that. Thanks!

Leaving drug wayand steroids aside, would it make sense that world's records would subside at some point anyway because sprot record's have only been recorded for 116 years or so. That means a record breaker would have to 'compete' with 116 years as compare to 1960 - 1980s where competed against less years.

Also before 1950, how many athletes spent every waking moment training for the Olympic moment?


Many years ago I attended a lecture -- it might've been by Herman Chernoff, but I've forgotten -- titled "How Often Should World Records Be Set?" which made exactly that point. If we assume that athletic talent is not improving, then it's pretty easy to see the sequence: the very first mile runner automatically sets the record. The next guy to run the race has a 50% chance of setting a new record. Etc.

Needless to say, there are strong reasons both theoretical and empirical to believe that athletes have been improving. But even if they keep improving, they're in a constant race against the ever-increasing sample of race results.

No, the second guy does NOT have a 50% chance of beating the record. The second guy has a 0% chance of beating it if he's slower and nearly a 100% chance of beating it if he's faster.

If your drawing contestants at random, the distribution of speed need not be normal. In any event, the relevant distribution is that of the maximum order statistic.

Runners are not selected at random. Runners are self selected based on their likelihood of placing high in the race and whatever gratification they derive from that. The person who could be the world's fastest runner might hate running.

In evolutionary probability, runners will become faster if and only if mutations that increase running speed are more likely to survive and reproduce than mutations that create slower runners. The human population might be breeding itself slower or faster. It is appealing to believe that increasing the size of the transtemporal population would eventually create a new fastest runner, but that is fallacious.

There are also physical limits to mechanical functions. We cannot believe that, given enough time and favorable breeding, that a running human (if we still call it that) will break the sound barrier. For example, the size of creatures with exoskeletons is limited by the strength to weight ratio. A man who carries a baby calf every day will not be able to hold the bull ten years later. The right tail does not extend to infinity.

The cheetah is the pinnacle of evolutionary running speed, but it can only sprint and must rest. So even when you have extraordinary abilities, there are tradeoffs. The sports will change in order to adapt to reality. Running has sprints, hurdles, cross country, steeplechase, and various distances. It's more likely we will invent new challenges (the 100 mile run) than continually break records.

US horse racing hasn't had a Triple Crown winner in 34 years despite intensive breeding and training. Secretariat's records in the Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmost Stakes haven't been broken in 39 years.

Like production in economics, biological functions have diminishing returns to evolutionary innovation.

"No, the second guy does NOT have a 50% chance of beating the record. The second guy has a 0% chance of beating it if he’s slower and nearly a 100% chance of beating it if he’s faster."

Huh? The second sentence is purely tautological and in no way refutes the first. mkt was making a statistical point about the difficulty of breaking records increasing over time. I really don't see what you are objecting to.

Why jump to the conclusion that technology and human achievement have hit a brick wall when there is a more plausible reason - athletic talent has become more highly valued in professional sports.

The only reason the US is not competitive in world soccer is that our best athletes play football, basketball, baseball, and hockey where they are highly paid. Our bicyclists do very well also. Our winter athletes are very good.

Does the ideal athletic skill / body trait distribution needed for, say, track coincide with the skills valued in, say, football or hockey?

Sure. The ideal 100m dash man looks like an All-Pro wide receiver: muscular and tall, but with a different personality: doesn't like team sports, doesn't like contact sports, but is well-disciplined and focused. The ideal American sprinter (as opposed to a football player who ran some track in the spring, like O.J. Simpson or Herschel Walker, who both set minor sprint world records), would be very black physically but very middle class culturally, and probably gay: in other words, he'd be Carl Lewis.

That belies my ignorance of (American) football. I had the stereotype of tall skinny runners and wide, muscular, heavy, football players.

OTOH, it seems like plenty of first-generation African continent immigrants to other nations have excelled in athletics; but I do not know of any (maybe there are?) who have made it in football. Does that merely reflect lack of exposure / equipment / interest-in-football? Or is there a physical reason for it.

First generation Africans have more success in EU soccer though( that's my feeling).

Since drugs came along big time in the 1980s, top sprinters tend to have remarkably muscular upper bodies: upper body strength is especially useful in the starts. Having a spectacularly ripped upper body doesn't make a big difference in absolute terms but it can make a huge difference in terms of medaling.

African names are becoming more common in the NFL, such as Ndamukong Suh, an amazing defensive lineman for Detroit. But, as you might be implying, I wouldn't be hugely surprised if the shift from poor nutrition and lots of infections in Africa to good nutrition and low disease burden in America took more than one generation to fully manifest itself.

By 2027 we will probably have robots capable of winning gold medals in every Olympic sport. And these robots will continue to improve dramatically. Perhaps in a few more Olimpiads there will be a parallel "Robolympics" where robots compete in the same sports as the human Olympics.

That's what we would expect if drug testing was getting better.

There's really no question that steroids work.

Seems like it may have as much or more to do with the declining popularity of some of these sports where the world's best athletes turn to other sports for training vs discus and long jump. Certainly if there was stagnation in athletic development it would impact most sports -- and it hasn't in swimming, sprinting, and marathon events.

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