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The end of athletic improvement?

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  January 22, 2011 11:40 AM

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Imagine they threw an Olympics, and nobody set a world record.

A broadcaster's nightmare — and, perhaps, the future of sports, according to an article by Paul Kix in tomorrow's Globe Ideas section.

Already, Kix writes, athletic records are falling less and less often. The women's 1,500 meter track record, for instance, hasn't budged since 1980. And a pair of provocative studies suggest that humans may simply be approaching the limits of our athletic ability:

In the sports that best measure athleticism — track and field, mostly — athletic performance has peaked. The studies show the steady progress of athletic achievement through the first half of the 20th century, and into the latter half, and always the world-record times fall. Then, suddenly, achievement flatlines. These days, athletes’ best sprints, best jumps, best throws — many of them happened years ago, sometimes a generation ago.

The studies focused on track and field and swimming, where it's easier to compare athletes from different generations because "improvement is marked scientifically, with a stopwatch or tape measure."

One of the study authors, Geoffroy Berthelot, predicts that by 2027 almost all human athletic improvement will end:

By that year, if current trends hold — and for Berthelot, there’s little doubt that they will — the “human species’ physiological frontiers will be reached,” he writes. To the extent that world records are still vulnerable by then, they will be improved by no more than 0.05 percent — so marginal that the fans, Berthelot reasons, will likely fail to care.

Globe photo: Czech athlete Jan Zelezny at the 2000 Olympics. Zelezny still holds the world javelin record he set in 1996.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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