Faster, higher, stronger: those are the three qualities captured in the official Olympic Games motto “Citius, altius, fortius”– to which some will want to add “dubious”.
With doping seemingly rife in sport generally and the Russian Olympic team in trouble, it’s hard to see the Rio Games as the embodiment of the famous dictum of Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, that it’s not the winning that matters but the taking part.
For some, performance-enhancing drugs also appears to be pretty crucial.
Yet among the estimated four billion of us who will tune in to the Games this week there remains the hope of seeing genuinely impressive athletic prowess.
Many of us will recall Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci becoming the first Olympic gymnast to achieve a perfect 10 at the 1976 Montreal Games.
Others will remember British rower Steve Redgrave defying the years by taking gold in his fifth successive Games in Sydney in 2000.
And then there is the ultimate Olympic feat: American Bob Beamon’s leap into the history books with his 8.90-metre-long jump at the Mexico Games in 1968, beating the record by more than half a metre.
It has been bested once since – by 5 centimetres by Mike Powell in 1991 – and is still the Olympic record almost 50 years on.
But there’s something else that’s impressive about these golden moments, and Olympic records in general – many date back decades.
That is especially true for women’s athletics, where almost half of the best Olympic performances are at least 20 years old.
Could it be that, 120 years after their relaunch by de Coubertin, the Olympics are hitting the limits of human performance?
That’s the question posed by an international team of researchers who have analysed performance records going back to de Coubertin’s era and earlier.
And for anyone hoping to witness Olympic history, the team has offered pointers of where to look.
Led by Dr Martin Weiss, of the EU’s Institute for Energy and Transport in Ispra, Italy, the team has applied techniques long used to predict performance in the manufacturing industry to sprint and distance running records.
The idea is that athletes compete against each other and learn from the experience.
This allowed the team to create mathematical models into which they fed the performance data to detect long-term trends.
The outcome, published in the European Journal of Sport Science, confirms that the performance of athletes has improved dramatically over the decades.
Since the time of the first Olympics, season-best performances by men in sprint and distance running have increased by about 25 per cent.
For example, if Usain Bolt was put in a 100 metre race against the world’s best in 1900, by the time he crossed the line they would still have more than 10 metres to run.
But for the sprint and middle-distance events – 100m to 1500m – the data also point to a distinct levelling off in performance. According to the mathematical models, Bolt’s world record time of 9.58 seconds set in 2009 seems pretty close to the limit of what human sprinters can do.
On current trends, it is likely to be decades before anyone breaks the 9.50 seconds barrier for the 100m.
The team found that women lifted their performance since the first Olympics by 67 per cent.
That translates to the world record-holder for the 100m sprint, the late American sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner, crossing the line 37 metres ahead of her counterpart about a century ago.
The data suggest, however, that female runners are closer to their limits than men. After soaring upwards, their performance curves have flattened out.
But the curves show something more – strange blips in performance clustering in the late 1980s.
Many of the current women’s Olympic athletics records were set at the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea.
Notorious for the scandal surrounding the drug-assisted 100m sprint of Canada’s Ben Johnson, the Seoul Olympics prompted investigations into the prevalence of doping.
While no one else tested positive, everyone fell under suspicion – among them Flo Jo herself, hailed as the fastest woman of all time and whose world and Olympic records of 1988 stand today.
Those suspicions intensified when the introduction of tougher drugs testing for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona led to performances falling back.
Were the Seoul Olympics the golden age of the drugs cheats? Or were they simply a time when for some athletes everything just came together?
Whatever the explanation, the new study suggests we’re unlikely to see the performances of Flo Jo eclipsed any time soon.
The outlook for records being broken at longer distances isn’t much better, with the analysis stating: “Over the past two decades, no woman has reached the sprint and middle-distance performances of the 1980s and early 1990s.”
Fortunately, the prospects of breaking records in men’s athletics are brighter, as their performance is still improving.
Dr Weiss and his team say we may witness new world records for every distance from 200m to 10,000m over the next decade or two.
And that’s ignoring the phenomenon that no mathematical model can capture: serendipity.
That is what propelled Beamon into the record books. He was one of several athletes who broke sprint and jump records after benefiting from the high altitude, and thus lower air resistance, in Mexico City. He was also helped along by a two-metre per second tailwind – the maximum permissible for a record. Together, they gave him a boost estimated to be worth more than 30cm.
This is why setting records at the Olympics is every athlete’s dream.
For just a few seconds every four years, everything has to be just perfect.
For Beamon, serendipity lasted six seconds. He never came close to repeating his 1968 long jump record – and neither did anyone else for almost a quarter of a century.
After all the scandal, it would be wonderful to see serendipity sprinkle its magic in Rio.
Robert Matthews is visiting professor of science at Aston University, Birmingham.
(via The National)