Two years ago, at the Summer Olympics in Rio, Wayde van Niekerk ran the 400 meters in 43.03 seconds. Before the South African sprinter could catch his breath, the announcers had already cast his record-setting run as an unbelievable feat of human performance. “I can’t believe it!” howled one. “He has obliterated Michael Johnson’s world record!” Over at NBC, a second announcer goaded, “Guess what, Michael Johnson? The world record has been destroyed!” Later that day, an equally enthusiastic release from the Olympic committee reupped the flowery verbiage with the headline, “Van Nierkerk Smashes World Record.”
But here’s the thing: Van Niekerk’s time was just 0.15 seconds quicker than Michael Johnson’s. That’s a literal blink of an eye. (Actually, it’s probably less: A single blink ranges from .1 to .4 seconds.) So, even though van Niekerk’s margin of victory was too short for most people to even lubricate their corneas, it was sufficiently impressive to “obliterate,” “destroy,” and “smash” the 17-year-old record that came before it.
This is where athletic performance stands today: Each new achievement is shockingly impressive because it’s become so rare for anybody to run faster, jump higher, or throw farther than his or her predecessors. And when they do, it’s usually by an infinitesimal margin.
Consider this: During the first 50 years of the 20th century, the 400-meter record was broken nearly once every four years, for a net gain of two seconds. In the most recent 50 years, the record was broken only three times — once every 17 years — and the total gain amounted to a mere 0.83 seconds. Last year, van Niekerk broke Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old record in the 300 meters; his time was 30.82 seconds, a mere .04 seconds faster than Johnson’s. You couldn’t even squeeze half a blink of an eye into that much time.
Those are just the records that have been broken. At least a dozen track-and-field events — including the 3,000- and 1,500-meter runs — haven’t seen a single new record in more than two decades. Not one! The long-jump record has gone untouched for 27 years; the shot-put record for 28 years. Both discus and hammer-throw records were established more than 30 years ago.
New records have become so rare that academics have begun to seriously consider whether humans have plateaued physically. “Nobody believes that you’re going to see huge improvements anymore,” says Anders Ericsson, PhD, author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. “It’s not like you’re going to reduce the 100-meter dash by two seconds or something like that.”
Geoffroy Berthelot, PhD, a senior research director at the École Polytechnique, outside Paris, concurs. Last year, he published a series of scatter plots that illustrated the best track-and-field performances by year. Some of the graphs stretch back to 1890, and within each sport, the resulting wave of dots increase steadily over decades, implying consistent gains in sprint times and shot-put distances. But shortly before the turn of this century, all the graphs level off, creating what looks like the outline of a volcano that blew its top. That’s the plateau: a visual representation of our stagnating strength and speed. And it holds for both men and women, despite the fact that men have had, on average, a 30-year head start in Olympic competition.
“I don’t think we can expect much change anymore,” says Berthelot. “It’s not a very positive point of view, but that’s what it is.”
For all of modern history, humans have been growing taller and living longer. But shortly before the athletic records began to taper, so too did our size and longevity.
Could he be wrong? If the past century has taught us anything, it’s that when it comes to feats of athletic prowess, we don’t know what we don’t know until we know it. To understand where human performance might go next, it helps to understand what brought us here in the first place: the unique, unexpected confluence of factors — genetic, financial, geographical, and technological — that combined to create a decades-long string of athletic achievements that would have seemed like science fiction to previous generations. The fact is that world records have always seemed impossible to break. And yet, somehow, we’ve continued to do it. Who says that has to stop?