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How much faster for how much longer?

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1How much faster for how much longer? Empty How much faster for how much longer? Tue Aug 02, 2011 4:06 pm



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Leading edge ... Shane Gould, right, Carl Lewis, left, broke world records in
their respective disciplines but the pace of time improvements is now slowing.

Faster and stronger, just for how much longer?

By David Sygall
Sydney Morning Herald
July 24, 2011

Matt Shirvington was 12 when Carl Lewis ran a world record 9.86 seconds at the 1991 World Championships. But he remembers the talk at the time.

''People were saying that could be it, the record could stand forever,'' the former sprint star says. ''Now we have a guy running 9.58s.''

In less than three years, Lewis's best was superseded by Leroy Burrell. Then by Donovan Bailey. Then Maurice Greene and Asafa Powell. Now Usain Bolt is the fastest man ever. Yet, between those and many other great runners over 20 years, Lewis's time has only been bettered by less than a third of a second.

Advertisement: Story continues below Modern science, medicine, nutritional and training improvements, as well as higher participation rates, increasing competition and the pool of potential speedsters, coalesced to produce times once considered unthinkable. But the rate of improvement in the 100 metres sprints in athletics and swimming has slowed, posing the question of whether the limit of human performance is imminent. Some predict a period of stagnation - or even regression - as sedentary lifestyles take an evolutionary hold on athleticism.

Researchers in a 2007 French study used an L-shaped graph to show that, while swimming and running records fell consistently for nearly a century, since the 1980s times have improved in ever smaller increments. That is, a steep curve was replaced by a flatter one. Last year, South Korean scientists concluded that a ''time to limit'' between 7½ and 10½ years existed. In other words, beyond the 2020 Olympics world records might be a thing of the past. How did we arrive at this point? Are we reaching the limit of human performance? How much further can swimming and athletics 100m records be lowered?

''A while ago I remember a scientist saying 9.53s was the limit of human perfection,'' Shirvington says. ''It's basically what Bolt has done. He's already rewritten the book - and I believe he'll go faster.''

Bolt is the ultimate product of systemic and scientific factors that have fostered faster times. In his home country, Jamaica, improved access to infrastructure and better coaching has built a generation of top sprinters who spur each other on, as did the American collegiate system in the 1980s and 1990s. Powell blazed the trail in Jamaica and Bolt followed. In between are stars including Lerone Clarke, who came from obscurity to win the 100m at last year's Commonwealth Games.

Worldwide, medical progress has advanced nutrition and recovery. Training techniques are improving and the internet has made coaching more diverse and accessible. Those who best utilise these factors will challenge world records.

''Bolt is a freak but he's so good because he can apply the infrastructure and science better than anyone else,'' Shirvington says. ''And there are areas he can still improve. He doesn't have a great reaction time and three or four of his first 20 metres can be better. That's why I think he'll go faster.''

Bolt's ability to mix talent with advanced science has earned him greatness. However, Shane Gould believes that in swimming, scientific coaching might start to have negative effects.

''I do think there's more speed that can happen in swimming,'' says Gould, who held the 100m record from 1971 to 1973. ''The clue is in qualitative measures rather than quantitative measures. Swimming has become all about numbers. But for the next improvements to be made, it has to come from the qualitative end of science.''

By this, Gould advocates a return to human instincts, such as body sense, spatial awareness and non-conformity. ''Science has gained great results but also caused some rigidity that doesn't allow for mavericks,'' she says. ''Swimming coaching has become standardised. It's set in stone, not open to new ideas.''

Gould is thankful she was coached ''organically''. She developed her style instead of copying the previous best, Dawn Fraser. She calls the recordholder from 1994 to 2000, Alexander Popov, as a ''maverick'' because, while his peers relied on power, he used a smooth and graceful stroke.

Gould thinks the next record breakers will come from outside the prescribed formula. ''Kids are told that because the world champion has a high stroke rate, you should too,'' she says. ''But that's not always right. There has to be a middle ground. I do believe there's a terminal velocity - it's impossible to do 100 metres in a second. But I think if times are going to improve, science alone is not going to be the answer.''

Despite the near purity of 100m sprinting and swimming, innovations have helped reduce times. Runners wear lycra and shoes are ever-lighter. Gould swam in a nylon swimsuit and didn't wear a cap. But, perhaps the secret to better times lies in human nature itself.

''In 2003 Dwayne Chambers ran 9.53s - I was in the race,'' Shirvington says. ''He crossed the line, saw the clock and honestly believed he'd done that time. But there was a fault. The clock stopped too early. What it showed was that, in his mind, he honestly believed he could run that fast. That's pretty powerful.'' Shirvington did standing long jumps at training. His coach would put the line in the sand further back. ''Did you realise you jumped five centimetres further than last time?'' he once asked. ''I didn't even think of the number,'' Shirvington says. ''It was just the goal, reaching that line.

''The more we understand the power of the mind, and the things that back it up, the more chance there is of records still being broken. The next record-holder will be not only someone who has the science and infrastructure behind them, but someone who truly believes he can do it.''

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