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National Editorial & Columnists

Looking back at the 'Peak Olympics'

Athletes may be on a plateau, or a launching pad

For decades, the world’s best athletes have smashed records in the Olympic Games, winter or summer. They ski, skate, cycle, swim and run faster. They jump higher. They throw farther.

Why?

Improved nutrition.

A larger pool of athletes worldwide.

Better training, starting at an earlier age. (Decades ago, athletes trained for only a few months before competitions. Imagine.)

Scientific advances in athletic equipment, like the high-tech aerodynamic body suit that skaters wear.

But researchers say athletes in some sports have reached the limit of human abilities. They theorize that this is the era of “Peak Olympics.”

Researchers have detected plateaus in performance for the shot put, high jump and 800-meter run, The New York Times reports. There are indications of the same in cycling, weightlifting, swimming and speedskating. Records can still be broken, but not by wide margins. The gap between top finishers is narrowing. Everyone is great, and someone is just a little greater.

No more Bob Beamon, breaking the long jump record at the 1968 Olympics, not by an inch or two, but almost 2 feet.

No more Jesse Owens, breaking three world records (long jump, 220-yard sprint, 220-yard hurdles) and tying another (100-yard dash) within 45 minutes.

If this truly is the era of peak human athletic performance, is it “depressing,” as the Times writer laments? Not at all.

First, if this really is as good as it gets, doesn’t the fact that many of these athletes are bumping up against limits of human endurance and performance make the games even more compelling?

If a record is broken by 0.5 seconds instead of
5 seconds, is it less impressive?

If American cross-country racer Jessie Diggins had won her sprint by more than 0.19 seconds, earning America’s first gold medal in the sport, would it have been more thrilling?

Hardly.

Second, human performance isn’t just about body. It’s about mind. In the 1940s and before, many people thought a runner could never log a 4-minute mile, as if that were a physical barrier, like warp speed, beyond human capabilities. In 1954, Roger Bannister proved the naysayers wrong.

“There was a mystique, a belief that it couldn’t be done,” Bannister said years later. “But I think it was more of a psychological barrier than a physical barrier.”

This can’t-do attitude persists. In ice skating, for instance, the quad jump – four rotations in the air – was rare until recent years. In the 2010 Winter Games, the winner didn’t even attempt a quad. This year, American skater Nathan Chen alone did six. Now there’s talk about the quint jump – five rotations.

Experts say – what else? – that it’s virtually impossible because of the extended time a skater must remain airborne. We’ll see. James Richards, a University of Delaware kinesiology professor who works with skaters, told The Wall Street Journal that skaters can rotate faster, but they’re hindered by a self-preservation instinct. Still, he says, “There’s always a person who comes out of the woodwork who has the right body type – and zero fear.”

Has human athletic skill peaked? We doubt it. Not as long as athletes can imagine the next leap.

A plateau can be the end. Or it can be a launching pad.

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