When Eric Heiden skated to glory at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., many observers believed that it ranked among the greatest achievements in sports history. The 21-year-old Wisconsin native captured five gold medals in speed skating, in events ranging from sprints to long distance. In the 10,000 meter race, Heiden blazed to a world record of 14:28.13 — more than 6 seconds faster than any skater before him.
Today, Heiden’s winning times wouldn’t elicit anything more than a yawn.
At the 2002 winter games in Salt Lake City, for example, his time would have placed him dead last in a field of 18 competitors. There, Dutch skater Jochem Uytdehaage captured gold while setting a world record of 12:58.92. Today, another Dutch skater, Carl Verheijen, has shaved the record to 12:57.92.
“Athletes continue to improve and push themselves to new levels of performance,” says Ryan Shimabukuro, national sprint team coach for U.S. Speedskating.
Throughout history, society has marveled at record performances. And, over the last century, athletes have obliged by breaking through barriers that once seemed impossible. When Roger Bannister shattered the four-minute mile barrier in 1954, some observers said that no other runner would ever repeat the feat. Today, top high school runners complete a mile run in less than four minutes. The story is the same for an array of events, including skiing, skating, swimming and track and field.
How can elite athletes continually break records and how much further can things go? While there are no clear answers, better training methods, improved technology and growing global interest in competitive sports promise that the assault on the record books will continue for the foreseeable future.
Slideshow: Taking gold “How close we are to our biological limit remains an open question,” states Carl Foster, a professor in the department of exercise and sports science at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse.
Over the last century, those who have tried to predict the limits of human athletic ability have found themselves continually proven wrong. Part of the reason, Foster says, is that the pool of outstanding athletes continues to grow.
“Those who competed in the early Olympics were almost entirely the social elite. That’s a very small slice of humanity,” he says. “The fall of social and economic barriers means that a potential world-record holder no longer works in the fields or in a factory. He’s on the world stage.”
No less significant are radical improvements in training methods. Today, researchers understand the physiology, biomechanics and biology of sport in ways that would have seemed incomprehensible only a couple of decades ago. Not only is there a greater understanding of how the body burns fuel and how muscles work, it’s possible to develop specific training regimens that push an athlete to the limit without risking injury and burnout.
Slideshow: 10 to watch at Turin In fact, it’s possible to optimize an athlete’s performance for specific events.
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Walter Thompson, a professor in the department of kinesiology and health at Georgia State University and a spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine, explains that researchers can now analyze the muscle fibers for a downhill skier, for instance, and focus on developing the right group.
Although an athlete already has a predetermined percentage of so-called fast-twitch and slow-twitch fibers (the former are better for speed events and the latter for endurance events), a coach can train an intermediate group of muscle fibers — through weight-lifting and sprinting, for example — to perform in fast-twitch mode and boost performance.
Psychology also enters into the picture. “At the elite level, there are a lot of people with incredible physical skills. It’s often the mental aspect that determines who wins races and sets records,” says Judy Van Raalte, a professor of psychology at Springfield College in Springfield, Mass.
Increasingly, sports psychologists and coaches work with athletes on goal-setting, visualization and positive thinking. They also work to create the right atmosphere at competition.
“Just as it’s possible to train physically, it’s possible to train mentally,” Van Raalte says. “The end goal is to get an athlete in the ‘zone’ on the day of the event rather than on a random basis.”
Help from high-tech gear
Yet another piece of the puzzle is technology. Over the years, vast improvements in clothing, equipment and facilities have radically changed many sports. High-tech materials used in skis, skin suits, skates and bobsleds has altered dynamics and aerodynamics.
Says Nadine Gelberg, president and founder of Get Charged, a Philadelphia organization that examines sports technology, “The question is: At what point does technology go beyond merely enhancing an athlete’s ability?”
Speed skating is a perfect example. When Heiden competed in the 1980 Olympics, he used a conventional ice skate with a single blade stretching from heel to toe. In 1998, athletes began to use clap skates (so-named because of the sound they make on the ice). The heel of the clap-skate boot separates from the blade as the skater pushes off. This allows the skater to push farther with each leg stroke and skate faster. Combined with indoor tracks and improved skin suits, world records have fallen at an even faster pace.
Gelberg believes that it is essential for governing bodies of various sports to take a hands-on approach to studying and regulating technology. Particularly since some athletes will do anything to win — and cash in on multimillion-dollar endorsements.
Slideshow: U.S. Olympic hopefuls “If we continue to improve technology there is no practical limit to what athletes can do,” she says. A future filled with bionic body parts, genetically engineered athletes and overly sophisticated equipment could diminish human achievement and spell doom. “At some point it becomes a spectacle rather than a sport,” Foster adds.
For now, coaches and athletes are working to use leading-edge knowledge and techniques to maximize results. Foster says that the rate of progression for setting records has begun to slow — though it’s anyone’s guess when humans will reach their natural limit.
Shimabukuro, a former skater who works closely with elite athletes, believes that, while some sports may be closer to the limit than others, “We still have a ways to go. Training methods continue to improve, there’s a greater understanding of the mental aspects of sports and athletes continue to push beyond the limits.”
Samuel Greengard is a Portland, Ore.-based writer whose work has appeared in American Way, Wired and the Los Angeles Times. He's competed in eight marathons.
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