The end of 'faster, higher, stronger?'

As the cream of the world's athletes converge on London for the Olympics, sports scientists say humans may be reaching the limits of their ability to set world records. But that takes nothing away from the drama of athletic competition.

Juan Carolos Ulate/Reuters
Sharolyn Scott, a 400-meter Hurdler from Costa Rica, trains for the London Games.

"Faster, Higher, Stronger.” The Olympic motto captures the pure athleticism we will witness after the great caldron is lit in London July 27. Individuals and teams from around the world will push themselves past the limit of human endurance to win a gold medal and, if possible, set a world record. 

Olympians – and we lesser specimens watching from our sofas – start with roughly the same factory-supplied bodies, breathe the same air, navigate the same terrestrial conditions. Their physical feats, however, put them on the far end of the human bell curve. 

Still, while dramatic contests will take place and heartbreakingly close races will occur during the Games, scientists increasingly believe humans are hitting
 limits of unassisted athletic performance. There’s only so much, it seems, that Homo sapiens’ muscles and lungs can accomplish.

Specialists at France’s National Institute of Sport, Expertise, and Performance have examined the top 10 performances in track and field and swimming during the modern Olympics era (1891 to 2008) and found that most records have stagnated since 1988. “Our physiological evolution will remain limited in a majority of Olympic events,” they concluded in their 2010 report.

Records may still be broken. In rare cases, extremely exceptional individuals may still emerge. High-tech footwear and no-drag swimsuits may provide a temporary edge – until everyone gets them or they are banned. The latest performance-enhancing drugs and futuristic procedures such as gene therapy may assist a few unscrupulous athletes. But as Peter Weyand, a biomechanics and physiology professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, wrote in a 2009 Monitor commentary, record-setting may “no longer lie within the traditional limits of human biology.”

If humanity’s unassisted quest for statistical glory is all but over, that may not be a bad thing. At the world-record level, microscopic differences in finishing times are increasingly trivial. Anything from a bad night’s sleep to a change in the weather can shave microseconds off a performance. The American swimming phenomenon Michael Phelps had an amazing comeback in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay in the 2008 Games. But his comeback was the story. His 1/100th-of-a-second victory over Serbian swimmer Milorad Cavic was so close that the race was essentially a tie.

The gracious Mr. Cavic epitomized the Olympic spirit when he said he was fine with the result because “there’s nothing wrong with losing to the greatest swimmer there has ever been.” So maybe the old ideal of “how you play the game” is beginning to supplant the relentless drive to win. 

In a Monitor cover story (click here to read it), we introduce you to eight remarkable Olympians from around the world – among them, a 71-year-old Japanese dressage competitor, a Somali runner who braved the mean streets of Mogadishu to train, a Massachusetts judo athlete who overcame abuse by a coach, a gentle-giant Iranian weightlifter, a female wrestler fighting taboos in India.

It is a cliché to say that these and others who make it to London win just by showing up. They have trained and are hungry. They want a medal. But their individual achievements are only part of what they are. Their back stories, not their superhuman skills, help the rest of us understand what the Olympics are about.


Gladys Tejeda: Getting to the Olympics on borrowed shoes


Hiroshi Hoketsu: A Japanese Olympian defies the age barrier

Kayla Harrison: An American Olympian rebuilds a life through judo and friends


Mohamed Hassan Mohamed: Training for the Olympics in the shadow of war

Behdad Salimi: An Iranian Olympian carries the weight of a nation               


Yamilé Aldama: A British track star jumps through a tough decade

Geeta Phogat: How an Indian wrestler defied gender taboos


Tahmina Kohistani: Afghan sprinter tries to beat the clock - and pollution

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