The Olympics have drawn to a close and this year saw the shattering of 19 different world records, some by staggering margins. US swimmer Kate Ledecky broke the 800 metre freestyle record, which she herself had previously set, by almost two seconds – a mammoth margin compared to the tenths and hundredths of seconds which often decide Olympic success. As we continue to swim faster, jump higher and throw further than ever before, these performances have left us wondering just how much further athletic performance can be pushed.
Many have tried to establish what the absolute limits for human performance are and science can provide us with some clues as to what they could be and when we will likely reach them.
It is clear, that there has been a dramatic improvement in athletic ability over the past century. This is reflected by the continuous improvement of world records in track and field athletics from the early 1900s, which tend to follow a linear rather than an exponential trend. However, this progress is not distributed evenly across the various disciplines of track and field athletics.
Over the last 100 years, large improvements have been made in the javelin and shot put, for example, while much smaller gains have been made in short-distance races, such as the 100, 200 and 400 metres. In 1909, for example, the men’s shot put record was 15.54 metres; the current record, set in 1990, is 23.12 metres. This means that we had an increase of almost 50% in throwing distance in just over 80 years. By contrast, the improvement we have seen in the men’s 100 metres over the last century is a relatively small 8%.