National Geographic Daily News
Kim Yu-Na of South Korea competes in the Ladies Free Skating event of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

South Korean figure skater Kim Yu-Na competes during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games.

Photograph by Jamie Squire, Getty Images

Richard A. Lovett

for National Geographic News

Published February 26, 2010

Last night all eyes in Vancouver were on South Korean figure skater Kim Yu-na, who Tuesday set a world record of 78.5 points in the women's short program with her tribute to James Bond during the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games.

But even with Kim's record gold-medal win Thursday night, athletic performances in many sports appear to be reaching their limits, a recent study concludes.

The work, based on a study of 40,000 performances in summer sports from 1896 to 2008, suggests that athletic performances have been relatively stagnant since a peak in 1988. (Related: "Vancouver 2010 to Be Warmest Winter Olympics Yet.")

The same principles probably apply to winter sports, said lead author Geoffroy Berthelot, a specialist in informatics and algorithmics at the National Institute of Sport and Physical Education in Paris.

"No matter the sport you're looking at, there's still a limit," he said.

Athletic records follow a "law of progression," in which large gains are made when a sport is new, Berthelot said. Improvements become smaller as the sport matures, and athletes must work harder for incremental gains.

Nearly two-thirds of track-and-field events, for instance, appear to have reached this point over the past 15 or 20 years, indicating that these events are now close to the limits of human performance.

Some events, such as the men's 400-meter hurdles and the men's and women's discus and shot put, haven't advanced at all since 1993.

Swimmers Get High-Tech Boost

By contrast, swimming records are improving at an accelerated rate, the study authors write in the January 20 issue of the journal PLoS ONE.

That, however, is due to the advent in the past few years of more hydrodynamic swimsuits, which in essence created an entirely new sport and reset the law of progression to an earlier stage. Until that point, swimming records had been broken at an ever decreasing rate.

(Related: "World Cup Kicks Off With Rounder, High-Tech Ball.")

2000 Olympic gold medalist Tom Malchow, who holds the world record in the 200-meter butterfly, said he "talked to a coach, who said I would have been three seconds faster" in a modern swimsuit.

Starting this year, however, new rules will restrict the use of such high-tech swimsuits.

"You're going to see a huge fall-off in the number of records," Malchow predicted.

High Pressure and Rampant Doping

Another arena where progress has been rapid is distance running, study author Berthelot said. But in this case, he believes, the reason is that distance races have been getting much less media attention than sprint races.

"Maybe there is so much pressure [on sprint racers] that the limits come very soon," he said.

Still, athletic events might not yet be as stagnant as Berthelot's study makes them appear, says Ken Young, who compiles track-and-field statistics for Running Times magazine.

The problem is that modern scores often wind up being compared to ones from the 1980s, which was an era of rampant steroid use, Young said.

"Not all steroid-enhanced records were identified and removed," he said by email. (Related: "Vancouver 2010 Games Spur Blood-Doping Fears.")

Study author Berthelot agrees, adding that "we do not know the exact part of doped athletes in our data."

Future studies will look for statistically based ways of spotting suspicious performances, he said, and will remove them from the data.

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