Battle to break records becoming a finite business


ATHLETICS:Although 13 world records were set during 2008, one French study suggests the days of this happening are now numbered

SO HOW was 2008 for the business of running, jumping and throwing? How did it hold up under the recent panic in the world economy, and what is the outlook for 2009? There is going to be a rush on reflection time over the next week so I thought I'd beat the crowd and get in there early. It's just hard to get a grip when almost everyone seems to be running around either half hysterical or half drunk under the increasingly impending sense of doom.

It helps therefore to be lying on the quiet beach at Rincon on the northwest coast of Puerto Rico, the point where the Atlantic Ocean turns into the Caribbean Sea and only thing disturbing the peace is the odd surfer paddling back from the offshore waves at Spanish Wall or Tres Palmas.

They call this place the Maui of the Caribbean and, true to surfer culture, the laid-back lifestyle is a lot more in tune with the calm beginnings of the 1960s than the hideous end to 2008. Perfect for some mellow contemplation.

And why Puerto Rico? Why not? Who needs reasons for coming to a place like this? Escape is all that matters. And after a long, easy run along Rincon's winding stretches of sandy beach the head couldn't have been any clearer for the task at hand.

There was much to reflect on. Most people with any sort of interest in the sport still consider a world record the ultimate benchmark of success in athletics, the big earner for both the athletes and the meet promoters. In that case 2008 not only broke all predictions, but was something of a record year in itself. Over the summer months a total of 13 world records were either set or bettered again, and that's well above anything experienced in recent years.

Seven of the world records were in men's events: the 100 metres (twice, by Usain Bolt); the 200 metres (Bolt, again); the marathon (Haile Gebrselassie); the 110 metre hurdles (Dayron Robles); the 4 x 100 metre relay (Bolt, again, with some Jamaican company); and the 50 km walk (Denis Nizhegorodov).

The women didn't do badly either, with six world records: the 5,000 metres (Tirunesh Dibaba); the 3,000 metres steeplechase (Gulnara Galkina); the javelin (Barbora Spotakova); and the pole vault (thrice, by who else but Elena Isinbaeva).

Given it was an Olympic year there was always going to be some exceptional performances, and yet the flurry of records during the summer still caught a lot of people off guard. Actually, at the start of the year, a study carried out by the French Institute of Sport (Irmes) concluded that the days of world records in athletics were numbered, and would run out in 2060 - after which date no more world records would be set.

Exactly how they figured this out takes a little explaining.

Irmes analysed all 3,260 world records set since the first modern Olympics in 1896, and, in the end, reckoned athletes are coming very close to reaching their physiological limits. They noticed a common pattern for all events, and based on their mathematical model, estimated that athletes were operating at 75 per cent of their potential in 1896, while in 2008, they would be operating at 99 per cent.

By 2027 the athletes in about half of the events will have reached 100 per cent, and by 2060 they all will. After that the only way a world record is likely to be broken is if the athlete is on industrial amounts of steroids or a product of genetic doping, or indeed both.

That's a study for another day, and in the meantime it's up to athletic freaks such as Usain Bolt.

But what the Irmes study didn't predict was where exactly the records will finish at. Some may well be finished already. The 10.49 that Florence Griffith-Joyner ran for the 100 metres back in 1988 hasn't been touched in the years since, nor does it look likely to be. Without going into the gruesome details of the rise of Flo-Jo, as she was affectionately known, (widespread rumours of steroid abuse, dead at 38) only one other women has run under 10.7 seconds for the 100 metres, and that was Marion Jones.

In other words Flo-Jo's record is unlikely to be broken before 2060.

There are several other dodgy records in the books and they are unlikely to be broken before 2060 either. Unless of course the IAAF finally gets some sense and remove all world records from the drug-infested 1980s.

However, there is still hope that the highs of 2008 can be maintained for a while yet.

In another study just published by the Journal of Experimental Biology, Mark Denny of Stanford University looked at the limits to running in humans, compared to dogs and horses, and came to some conclusions of his own.

Denny reckoned that the 9.69 seconds that Bolt ran for the 100 metres in the Beijing Olympics can definitely be improved, and put the absolute human limit at 9.48.

Likewise, he believes Flo-Jo's record will go and that a woman can someday run the 100 metres in 10.39.

Dogs and horses, he says, already reached peak speeds in the 1970s, while humans are still getting faster. And Bolt is ample proof of that.

A more basic study was carried out on Bolt shortly after Beijing, when Norwegian physicist Hans Eriksen analysed TV footage of the Olympic final and estimated that Bolt would have run 9.55 seconds had he not slowed down to punch his chest and acknowledge his own extraordinary performance.

Even the long distances have some room for improvement. When Gebrselassie ran his 2:03.59 for the marathon last September it seemed the magical two-hour barrier was edging ever closer, yet Denny puts the human limit for running 26.2 miles at 2:00.47.

The women are already closer to their limit, as he reckons Paula Radcliffe's world record of 2:15.25 can only be trimmed to 2:14.97.

All this is very theoretical, of course. Who really knows the limits of human performance? 2008 may have been something of a peak on the graph, but like everything else in life, it's cyclical. Just look at swimming - where a truly astonishing 70 world records were set in 2008.

And consider this: in athletics, the average length that a world record has been in existence, across all 21 events, is now eight years and 11 months for men, and 14 years and nine months for women; in swimming, the average length that a world record has been in existence, across all 16 events, is one year and one month for men, and an incredible eight months for women.

Something in the water, perhaps, but if athletics ever has a year like swimming just had then Irmes, Denny et al may well be recalculating their limits of human performance.

World records, after all, are not too unlike the economy.

There will always be up and down years. Right now the prospects for 2009 look good but who really knows?

It's just better to reflect on these things with the sun on your back and the cool Caribbean wind blowing in your face and as far away as possible from any impending sense of doom. Because who really knows if we'll ever have it so good again.

" Who knows the limits of human performance? 2008 may have been something of a peak on the graph, but like everything else in life, it's cyclical. Just look at swimming - where a truly astonishing 70 world records were set in 2008