Olympics And The Limits To Human Performance

THE greatest sporting spectacle is now underway in Athens. The Olympic games are a test of the limits to which the human body can be made to perform. The motto of the Olympic Games – Faster, Higher, Stronger – is symbolic of this quest for excellence, the quest for trying to reach the absolute limits to which the human body can be pushed. Over the last century athletes competing in the Olympic games have pushed their performance to higher and higher levels. That brings us to the obvious question – are we nearing the limit of human performance?

The simple answer to the question would be: not yet, but records are being broken by ever narrower margins. When we plot a graph showing how the best performance in a given event changes over time, we see the graph leveling off. Theoretically, an absolute limit to how far or fast the human body can go does exist, but it is impossible today to accurately predict that limit. Perhaps the only way we will be able to recognise the ultimate performance will be retrospectively, after a record has stood for years.

Some experts have tried to calculate the absolute limit of performance. They take the highest value for each crucial physiological factor ever recorded in an athlete, such as the maximum oxygen uptake, the greatest efficiency with which energy is burned and the best stamina. Then they figure out how fast someone might go if these were all combined in one body. By these calculations, we may one day see a sub-two-hour marathon or even a three-and-a-half-minute mile. But the probability of finding someone with these exceptional abilities is pretty low.


Let us examine what are the factors that drive performance in athletes. Much of the increases in performance, especially in the early part of the modern area, came from improved nutrition and improved training techniques. In developed countries the advantage of these two factors has tapered off, even disappeared. But they are now coming into play in the improved performance by athletes from developing countries.

In the last 80 years, on an average, records related to disciplines that involve running have improved by about 10 per cent. In contrast, the triple jump record is over 30 per cent longer, for high jump it is 35 per cent, and for long jump it is 41 per cent. For the more technical pole vault event, the record is over 80 per cent higher than in 1896. This illustrates the fact that there has been greater improvements in events that are more technical or where an improvement in the apparatus makes a major difference in performance. The application of scientific methods in training has also helped stretch the levels of attainment. Much of Olympic sports involves mechanics and an application of the principles of Physics has helped boost performance. The sportswear company called Speedo is promoting the use of its “sharkskin” swimsuit that covers almost the entire body. The suits are designed to simulate the skins of sharks and minimise “drag” that is the resistance that swimmers feel in the water. In the jumps, improved techniques (like the Fosbury Flop technique for high jump introduced in 1968) have contributed to advanced performance levels. In Pole vault the introduction of the new pole made of fibreglass revolutionised the sport. Such improvements, based on better equipment also took place in throwing events such as discus and javelin, as well as in events such as archery and shooting.

However, the advantage conferred by technology and improved training techniques is now tapering off. Today, there are two important factors that continue to drive up Olympic records. First is the fact that more people are competing today than ever before. Statistically, that must lead to improved records. We see today the entry of new nations that are doing well in the Olympics. They are able to do so because of a minimum level of health and nutrition that they are able to provide to the general population, and basic facilities for sports that a large number of people can avail of. The performances of Chinese and Cuban athletes, for example, have shown tremendous improvement in the last two decades. When a country like China is able to compete on equal terms with the rest of the world, it means an addition of one-fourth of humanity to the pool of possible competitors.

Secondly, those who excel are really the exceptionally talented or gifted – whose performance level is way beyond the average for the population. While improved health, nutrition and training can and do improve the abilities and performance levels in a general population, those who truly excel in modern day competition are possibly also gifted with a physical and physiological advantage to start with. Better facilities and nurturing helps to bring out this advantage.

Let us look at what these advantages could be. First is the oxygen carrying capacity of the individual. Remember that oxygen is vital for any physical activity, as the body burns oxygen to produce energy. The way athletes use energy differs – long distance runners require a steady supply over extended periods while sprinters need very high volumes over a short period. The ability of the body to deliver oxygen is determined by the lung capacity – i.e. the volume of air that the lungs can hold, as well as on the oxygen carrying capacity of blood. Sporting performance also depends on muscle mass, and crucially on the kind of muscle fibres that are present. Skeletal muscles, that is muscles in our body that we use for physical exertion, have two types of fibres, categorised on the basis of the speed at which they contract: type I, or slow-twitch muscles, and type II, fast-twitch muscles. There are two kinds of the latter: type IIa, intermediate between fast and slow; and type IIb, which are superfast-twitch. Long distance runners tend to have mostly type I fibers, which have more extensive blood supply and are packed with mitochondria, which deliver sustained levels of energy. Sprinters, on the other hand, have mostly type II fibers, which hold lots of sugar as well as enzymes that burn fuel in the absence of oxygen.

Another physiological advantage that athletes can have is a larger lung capacity and a higher oxygen carrying capacity of the blood. This is seen typically in populations who live in higher altitudes – they need the high lung capacity as the air they breathe has less oxygen. They also have higher oxygen carrying capacity in the blood – a larger number of red blood cells that carry the oxygen. This explains why many of the greatest long distance runners have been from such regions – the great Finnish runners like Pavo Nurmi, Lasse Viren and more recently the legendary Kenyan runners like Kip Keino.


The Kenyan runners who have dominated modern day distance running in the last 30 years are a unique phenomenon. Kenyan men now hold world records in distances of 3000-metres, 15-kms, 20-kms, and 25-kms, the half-marathon, and the marathon. Kenyan men have won 13 of the last 14 Boston marathons. Kenyan women hold half of the top 10 marathon times and world records in 20-kms, 25-kms, and 30-kms distances. What is even more remarkable is that most of these athletes come from a small area in Kenya’s Rift Valley, from a group of tribes called the Kalenjin who number little more than 3 million people.

A major physiological advantage that the Kenyans seem to have is their ability to withstand fatigue and sustained physical exertion over long periods. Studies now show (reported in Science: Vol.35 July 30, 2004) that Lactate, generated by tired, oxygen-deprived muscles, accumulates more slowly in their blood. Accumulation of lactate leads to fatigue and diminished performance of muscles. They have higher levels of an enzyme that breaks down lactate. As a result it is calculated that they are able to save about 8 per cent energy per kilometre – a huge advantage at the highest levels of competition.

The Kenyans have their counterparts from the other side of the continent – West Africa. Scientists are trying to unravel why athletes whose ancestors come from the region have emerged as the world’s fastest sprinters. Initially almost all of them represented the United States (descendants of those forcibly brought to the country to work in plantations 200 years back), but now represent a number of other countries like the UK, Canada, Jamaica, France, and others. Today, they monopolise virtually all the short distance running events – 100 metres, 200 metres, 400 metres, the 100 and 400 metre hurdles. They hold 35 per cent of all top 900 times in the running events, concentrated entirely in the sprints. An even more staggering statistic: all of the 32 finalists in the last four Olympic men’s 100-meter races are of West African descent. The last time a person with an ancestry from outside that region set the men’s world record in the 100-meter sprint was in 1960! The answer to this phenomenon also possibly lies in the physiological advantage that athletes from this region have because they have a higher proportion of type II muscle fibres, i.e. the fast twitch fibres.

Are we then suggesting that genetics determines the level of performance in modern athletics? Not really. Genetic make up may provide a slight advantage to a group that share certain physiological characteristics that are beneficial in a certain sport. But this advantage is extremely small – and expresses itself only if the advantage is allowed to be nurtured. Thus, while it is now being posited that Black sprinters have that critical edge, they were not a significant force in world athletics before the sixties. It is only when the conditions of Blacks in United states and other Northern countries improved that they started dominating the sprint events. Even today those who live in West Africa, and would presumably have the same advantage, do not do well at the world level. So environment and training do play a very important and critical role in the expression of the physiological advantage that people may possess. It is entirely conceivable that in our country, with a population of 1 billion, there are people who do have special abilities. Unfortunately our people are still denied of the enabling environment that can help express these abilities.


Unfortunately, no discussion on Olympics and records can be complete today without mentioning the bane of doping – that is the use of artificial performance enhancing substances. Doping first started with the use of synthetic hormones called steroids that help build muscle mass. It soon spread to include other drugs specific to the demands of a particular sport. It included drugs that help eliminate tremors in disciplines like archery and shooting, drugs that help loose water to reduce weight suddenly in disciplines like weightlifting, etc. Testing for such substances was introduced in the 1972 Munich Olympics. Since then its been an even game – as testing techniques have developed drug cheats try to stay a step ahead by introducing drugs that are more and more difficult to detect because they mimic the effects of naturally occurring hormones. The huge problem of doping has put a major question mark on a number of records that are being set today.

Sadly, we are increasingly seeing a world population marked by regression towards physical sloth and mediocrity that amuses itself by watching a very few extremely genetically gifted, technically trained and sometimes artificially enhanced “gladiators.” The Olympic movement’s biggest challenge today is to make sure that it is a measure of true human endeavour. Further, that it provides every woman and man a fair chance to compete on a level playing field.