Photograph by JOHN HUET
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Swimmer Katie Ledecky shattered her own record in the 1,500-meter freestyle swimming event by five seconds in May, her first professional race. She set a new record of 15:20.48. The previous record was set at the world championships nearly three years ago.

Photograph by JOHN HUET

How Technology and Smarts Help Athletes Push the Limits

Science is helping to create new training methods and amazing performances by athletes such as swimmer Katie Ledecky. How much faster, stronger, and better can humans get?

This story appears in the July 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The race for the ages can be run only in our imagination: Usain Bolt vs. Jesse Owens.

Bolt is in his 21st-century lane, a smooth, slip-resistant rubber surface spread out for 100 meters, designed to quickly return energy to his legs as he races across it.

Then there’s Owens in his pre-World War II lane, an uneven bed of cinders, a soft surface that actually steals energy from his legs as he runs.

Bolt, the Jamaican sprinting legend who has eight Olympic gold medals and has held the world records in the men’s 100- and 200-meter sprints for nearly a decade, is wearing lightweight shoes made specifically for running on high-tech surfaces. For his entire competitive life, he has received the finest training the world has ever seen. He jets to competitions and has his own cook, who makes him lean, nutritious meals. Bolt also has been at his peak during the height of the steroids era in sports. He has never tested positive, but suspicion follows many top Olympic athletes of his time. Bolt had to forfeit a gold medal he won as part of a relay in the 2008 Olympics after a teammate tested positive.

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Jesse Owens won the 100-meter race at the 1936 Olympics in 10.3 seconds.

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A lightweight shoe like the one that Usain Bolt wore to set the world record in the 100-meter sprint in 2009 is shown on a piece of Mondotrack, similar to what he ran on that day in Berlin. The surface is designed to return energy to runners, making them faster.
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Usain Bolt, shown in 2016, holds the record, 9.58 seconds. With a better running surface and lightweight shoes, Owens could have been significantly closer to Bolt’s times.

Owens, who won the 100 meters with a time of 10.3 seconds in the 1936 Olympics—one of four gold medals he claimed in Berlin—is wearing leather running shoes. Bolt is able to get a quick launch from state-of-the-art starting blocks, but Owens must dig his own “starting blocks” out of the cinders with a gardening trowel.

Owens grew up in a segregated America, with few of the perks of modern athletes. To get to Berlin, he and other U.S. athletes spent several days crossing the Atlantic on an ocean liner.

Bolt, who ran the 100 meters in a record 9.58 seconds in 2009 and retired last year, is still widely recognized as the world’s fastest man. But how much faster was he, really, than elite sprinters of previous generations like Owens?

Setting aside the questions about performance-enhancing drugs, how far have we come in our never ending quest to go faster, higher, and farther? And what are we learning about how technology and new training methods can help us push the limits of human performance?

A demonstration included in a 2014 Ted Talk given by sports journalist David Epstein showed that if Owens had run on the same surface as Bolt, Owens’s best time in the 100 meters (10.2 seconds)—accomplished shortly before the 1936 Olympics—could have been within one stride of Bolt’s performance in the 100 meters (9.77 seconds) at the 2013 World Championships.

In the eight decades since Owens’s historic victories, improvements in training, testing, technique, clothing, and equipment have helped athletes become better, faster, stronger, and more precise. But researchers believe we have not yet reached the limits of human possibility.

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Paralympian sprinter Jarryd Wallace’s bio­ mechanics are analyzed at the Southern Methodist University Locomotor Performance Laboratory in Dallas, Texas. “There was a lot I was doing wrong,” says Wallace, 28. The four-­time world record holder, whose lower right leg had to be amputated because of a muscle disorder, uses the lab’s analysis of his stride to run even faster.

The speed of innovation

Male and female Runners have bested world records in

the 100-meter dash over the past century. But the gear and

the track infrastructure are what have changed most

dramatically since the first competitions were run with

the help of nails driven into the soles of dress shoes.

13.5

seconds

13.0

12.5

12.0

11.5

11.0

10.5

10.0

1910

10.6 seconds

Donald Lippincott, U.S.

July 6, 1912

1920

Duration of record

13.6 seconds

Marie Mejzlíková II,

Czechoslovakia

1930

August 5, 1922

10.2

Progression of 100-meter

dash world record,

Jesse Owens, U.S.

1940

June 20, 1936

1910-2018

KEY

Women

Men

Manually

timed record

1950

Electronically

timed record

1960

1970

Separate records for manual and electronic times were

kept from 1968 to 1977 as technology was improving.

1980

Lightning strikes thrice

10.49

1990

Florence Griffith-Joyner, U.S.

Usain Bolt broke the

men’s world record twice

in 2008 and again in 2009,

dropping it by 0.14

seconds, more than any

man in the modern era.

July 16, 1988

The unbeatable FloJo

The top three women’s times are held by Florence Griffith-Joyner. She never tested positive for steroids, but her 1988 record—still unbroken today—shows how great performances can raise suspicion.

2000

9.72

9.69

9.58

Fastest time since

Griffith-Joyner:

2010

Usain Bolt, Jamaica

August 16, 2009

10.64

Usain Carmelita Jeter

August September 20, 2009

Lighter shoes

Better timekeeping

Stronger starts

Faster tracks

Polyurethane tracks

debuted at the 1968

Olympics. The tracks are

bouncier and return energy

to a runner; cinder tracks

absorbed energy.

Early racers dug holes into

the tracks, which were usually

laid with cinders. The

introduction of solid starting

blocks in the late 1920s

led to new world records.

The first running shoes

were simply leather dress

shoes, with nails to provide

grip. Today’s shoes boast

nylon, fiberglass, and

single-use spikes.

Early stopwatches measured

only fifths of a second. It

wasn’t until 1977 that fully

digital timekeeping—to

the hundredths of seconds—

became mandatory.

Jason Treat, NGM Staff; Meg Roosevelt

Art: SErgio Ingravalle. icons: Álvaro Valiño. Sources: Adrien Marck,

National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance, France; IAAF

The speed of innovation

Male and female Runners

have bested world records in the 100-meter dash over the past century. But the gear and the track infrastructure are what have changed most dramatically since the first competitions were run with the help of nails driven into the soles of dress shoes.

Stronger starts

Early racers dug holes into

the tracks, which were usually

laid with cinders. The

introduction of solid starting

blocks in the late 1920s

led to new world records.

Lighter shoes

The first running shoes

were simply leather dress

shoes, with nails to provide

grip. Today’s shoes boast

nylon, fiberglass, and

single-use spikes.

Faster tracks

Polyurethane tracks

debuted at the 1968

Olympics. The tracks are

bouncier and return energy

to a runner; cinder tracks

absorbed energy.

Better timekeeping

Early stopwatches measured

only fifths of a second. It

wasn’t until 1977 that fully

digital timekeeping—to

the hundredths of seconds—

became mandatory.

Manually

timed record

Electronically

timed record

Duration

of record

WOMEN

13.5

sec.

13.0

12.5

12.0

11.5

11.0

10.5

1910

13.6 seconds

Marie Mejzlíková II,

Czechoslovakia

1920

August 5, 1922

1930

Stronger Starts

1940

1950

Lighter Shoes

1960

Faster Tracks

1970

1980

Better

Timekeeping

1990

10.49

Florence Griffith-Joyner, U.S.

July 16, 1988

The unbeatable FloJo

The top three women’s times are

held by Florence Griffith-Joyner.

She never tested positive for ste-

roids, but her 1988 record—still un-

broken today—shows how great

performances can raise suspicion.

2000

2010

MEN

10.5

10.25

10.0

9.75

1910

10.6 seconds

Donald Lippincott, U.S.

July 6, 1912

1920

1930

Stronger Starts

10.2

Jesse Owens, U.S.

June 20, 1936

1940

1950

Lighter Shoes

1960

1970

Faster Tracks

1980

Better

Timekeeping

1990

2000

9.72

2010

9.69

9.58

Usain Bolt, Jamaica

August 16, 2009

Jason Treat, NGM Staff; Meg Roosevelt

Art: SErgio Ingravalle. icons: Álvaro Valiño.

 

Sources: Adrien Marck,

National Institute of Sport, Expertise and

Performance, France; IAAF

Peter Weyand, who runs the Locomotor Performance Laboratory at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and is one of the world’s leading experts on the biomechanics of sprinting, says that the potential for significant improvement in the 100- and 200-meter sprints and in marathons is not out of the question. His lab uses high-speed video analysis to study sprinters’ techniques, looking for ways to make them more efficient—and faster. Weyand is part of a team led by United Kingdom sports scientist Yannis Pitsiladis that’s focused on breaking the two-hour marathon barrier. (A similar Nike effort fell short in 2017.) To help athletes shatter records, researchers are focusing on such key areas as physiology, nutrition, biomechanics, medical support, real-time monitoring, and coaching. This kind of scientific knowledge “allows performance to be improved,” Weyand said.

To help athletes legally push the limits of performance, scientists are experimenting with new techniques and equipment, measuring performance in novel ways, and monitoring athletes’ nutrition and physical and mental health.

That amazing pass by a player on your favorite soccer team? It might have gotten its start with a training machine called the Footbonaut, which fires soccer balls at a player at varying speeds and rhythms, forcing the player to control the ball and send it to an open slot in the machine.

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CJ Cummings’s body type and his technique—he pulls the bar faster than other lifters and maintains this speed as the lift progresses—separate him from the competition. Bob LeFavi, while head of health sciences and kinesiology at Georgia Southern University in Savannah, analyzed Cummings’s biomechanics. Researchers found that a “perfect storm” of attributes—strength, speed, body structure, and technique—all contribute to his success. Still a teenager, Cummings should reach his full potential in his mid to late 20s, LeFavi says.

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Record-breaking weightlifter Cummings, 18, defended his Youth World Championship in 2017 and broke his own world record for the “clean and jerk” by lifting 407 pounds.

That curveball your favorite baseball pitcher threw? Fifty years ago, coaches would simply watch a pitcher to see how he was throwing. Now coaching is a mixture of reviewing video and statistics on big-screen TVs, cell phones, tablets, and laptop computers—with old-fashioned intuition thrown in. And coaches can instantly measure the speed of a pitch.

This conversation about human performance comes with a strong note of caution. Can we believe what we’re seeing? In 1988 we marveled at the world record 100-meter dash of Canada’s Ben Johnson—until he tested positive for using a performance-enhancing drug, was stripped of his gold medal, and was sent home from the Summer Olympics in Seoul. The steroids era in sports is going strong 30 years later: U.S. cyclist Lance Armstrong, U.S. track star Marion Jones, Russia’s Olympic delegation—the list of violators goes on.

But let’s focus on the good in sports technology, which has upended training for paralympic athletes as well.

Visually impaired skier Danelle Umstead, a three-time Paralympian and three-time bronze medalist in a sport where athletes can reach speeds of 70 miles an hour, has trained in a wind tunnel that allowed her to work on aerodynamics with a sight guide. During races she follows her partner through the course as they communicate via headsets. Training in the tunnel helped her tweak her technique to go faster.

Meanwhile, coaches and athletes are challenging long-held assumptions about training.

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Olympic hopeful Michael Andrew trains with his father and coach, Peter, in a pool at their home in Lawrence, Kansas. He swims short, fast distances in a program that challenges traditional training methods.
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Swim prodigy Andrew’s training program of high-intensity distances conditions his mind and muscles to swim at race pace. Andrew, 19, holds 22 USA Swimming records.

Michael Andrew, 19, has broken the most national age-group swim records in USA Swimming history and holds 22 national records. He and his father-coach, Peter, swear by a nontraditional training method called Ultra-Short Race-Pace Training, or USRPT. Andrew swims at short high-speed distances, conditioning his mind and body to constantly swim at race pace. Traditionally, elite swimmers have built endurance through workouts that involve a slower pace with more yardage. The much debated approach has helped make Andrew an Olympic hopeful for 2020 and is gaining traction among top swim coaches in the U.S. and elsewhere.

“Everything we do is science-based; there is data to back up what we’re doing in the pool,” Andrew says. “Our brain and our body will code these movements like a computer would. It doesn’t make sense to train slowly when you’re trying to swim fast.”

American distance swimmer Katie Ledecky, who recently announced that she is leaving the Stanford University team to become a professional swimmer, has a more traditional training method. But Ledecky, 21, has used sports science to become one of the best women’s freestylers in the world. The five-time Olympic gold medalist, who set two world records at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, eagerly digests readouts about her nutrition and blood work, and studies videos of her workouts and races, looking for ways to improve her arm and hand movements. Ledecky’s success often is attributed to her work ethic; her real secret could be that she has one of the most efficient strokes in swimming.

That wouldn’t have mattered, though, if she had not been willing to work hard, says Bruce Gemmell, who coached Ledecky to the 2016 Olympics. In the three years before the Rio Olympics, Ledecky’s weekly workload was usually 60,000 to 65,000 yards, spread over nine practices in six days. “I give speeches about coaching Katie,” Gemmell says. “One day, I’m tempted to put up just one slide saying, ‘Katie works her ass off, and she’s tough as nails,’ and then say: ‘Any questions?’ ”

Two things during those practices made a difference for Ledecky in Rio. She wanted to pay attention to the start of her races—how she dived into the pool. For sprinters, this obsession would make sense. Every 10th of a second matters in races that are decided by hundredths of a second.

But Ledecky is a distance swimmer, known for finishing far ahead of her competitors. “She studied a video of her starts, hoping to gain a 10th of a second,” Gemmell says. Ledecky’s second practice obsession involved the finish of the 200-meter freestyle. As she would finish a series of laps during practice, she would suddenly pick up the tempo at the end, in the last 15 meters or so, increasing her kick furiously, Gemmell says.

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Paralympic visually impaired skier Danelle Umstead, 46, tests her aerodynamics in a wind tunnel to learn better techniques for drafting behind her sight guide (not shown), who skis in front of her. Paralympic skiers can reach speeds of 70 miles an hour.

“In the midst of this most mundane work, she did that, two to three times a week, for 15 minutes to a half hour, finishing every rep that way.”

Move ahead to the 200 freestyle in Rio. Because it was her shortest individual race, it would be her closest. She couldn’t put other swimmers away so decisively in such a short race, just four lengths of the pool. She knew the finish would matter most. Sure enough, as swimmers neared the finish in the 200-meter finals, Ledecky’s top rival, Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden, closed fast and drew even with Ledecky with 15 meters to go. It looked like Sjostrom had the momentum and would win.

But Ledecky wouldn’t lose. Why? It was all that practice for the end of the race. “When Sarah pulled up even, I thought, I’ve seen Katie finish that race more than a thousand times. She’s going to get her hand to the wall first.”

And she did. “No wonder she can do that in the pressure cooker at Rio,” Gemmell says. “She knew exactly what she was doing in practice, over and over again.”

Ledecky’s overall performance in Rio was one for the history books. But she and Gemmell had foretold it three years earlier, after she broke the 800-meter freestyle world record. They were musing about how much faster she wanted to go in the 800- and 400-meter freestyles in 2016, and Ledecky wrote down her goals on a Styrofoam float she used in practice and carried with her to meets around the world. Her new world record for the 800 freestyle was 8:13.86. Ledecky’s goal? 8:05. It seemed crazy: Breaking her own world record would be one thing, but by almost nine seconds?

During the next three years, Ledecky kept lowering her world record in the 800 freestyle. By early 2016 she had dropped her record to 8:06.68. In Rio she crushed the field and set another new world record: 8:04.79.

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Runners from Iten practice together. Distance running is a proud tradition in Kenya, where many of the best runners take advantage of the region’s high altitude and challenging terrain. Kenyan men have nine of the 10 fastest times in the marathon; four of the 10 fastest women’s times were run by Kenyans.
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Acclaimed distance runner Nancy Kiprop, 39, dances with students at the school she founded near Iten, a tiny corner of western Kenya where many of the world’s fastest distance runners train. The local government allowed her to establish the school, which she named in honor of her father. Kiprop subsidizes the children’s school fees with income from her shoe sponsorships and race earnings.

This made Gemmell wonder: “What if we had said eight minutes flat? We don’t know where the limit is. We set goals that were unheard of three years before Rio. Once Katie reached them, I couldn’t help but wonder in the back of my mind: Why didn’t we set them faster?”

Ledecky and other top athletes today have the advantage of the march of time in their sport. Look at a photo of swimmer Mark Spitz from the 1972 Olympics, and you’ll see the difference: no goggles, no cap, no state-of-the-art, water-repelling swimsuit. He even had a mustache. Pools then didn’t have the improved gutter systems and wave-reducing lane ropes that competition pools use now to absorb much of the splash from nearby swimmers. It all slowed Spitz down, but we didn’t know that then. He still won seven gold medals in 1972.

Health science has played a big part in the lives of generations of swimmers since. Gemmell tells a story about a minor ankle injury Ledecky suffered while practicing at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in late spring 2016, just a few months before Rio.

“Within two hours, we had the opinions of two doctors, we had an ultrasound, we had a physical therapist, a strength and conditioning coach, a swim coach—that was me—and like three other people, who had already reviewed the data, consulted with each other, and formulated a plan.”

Alan Ashley, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s chief of sport performance, says the key to breaking performance barriers is to “keep athletes healthy. If they stay healthy, everything else falls into place.”

In the late 1960s, figure skater Audrey King Weisiger finished third in the U.S. women’s novice division one year and third in the junior division the next. She learned to jump high and quickly—not because it was the right way to do it but because she was training on a small rink in Falls Church, Virginia, that was one-third the size of a regular rink. “If I went the distance, I would have smashed into the wall,” she says.

Coming up in the sport about the same time as 1976 Olympic champion Dorothy Hamill, Weisiger was surrounded by young women doing double-revolution jumps, so she did only doubles in competition, although she did successfully do triple jumps in practice. Unlike today’s skaters, she didn’t train with weights, she didn’t take Pilates, and she wasn’t concerned about nutrition. “We did have ballet,” she recalls.

Move ahead to the late 1980s and 1990s. Weisiger, by then a top-ranked international coach, taught her pupil Michael Weiss how to land doubles and triples—and finally, quadruple jumps. He was the first American to attempt a quad toe loop at the U.S. national championship in 1997. Weiss went on to compete in two Olympic Games and won three national titles and two world championship bronze medals.

Unlike Nathan Chen, a 2018 Olympian whose slim body and tiny waist and hips help him rotate quickly in the air, Weiss had a muscular build, so he relied on upper-body strength to power himself through the air.

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Ledecky—a world-record-breaking athlete who won four gold medals and one silver at the 2016 Olympics—has the latest scientific and technological resources and training available. The U.S. distance swimmer studies readouts about her nutrition and blood work, reviews video of her technique. Ultimately, her success is attributed to grit, hard work, and a near perfect stroke.

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Swimmer Ledecky is known for her tough work ethic. She also relies on sports science to improve performance and is equipped with the latest innovative gear.

Weisiger would record Weiss’s jumps on what would now be a vintage video camera, put the VHS tape into a VCR hooked to a TV monitor, and then wheel the TV onto the ice so she and Weiss could watch it together. Then they’d get back to work.

“We could see it, but we had no way yet to measure it,” Weisiger recalls with a laugh. “I’d say, ‘I think it’s high enough,’ and off we’d go, trying it again.”

Today, chatting over dinner at a restaurant, Weisiger touches her iPhone and opens an app called Vert. “If I put a belt with a sensor on you, and you jumped, I could tell you with my phone how high you jumped, which would be the beginning of our conversation about trying a quad,” she says.

Later Weisiger sent me a dozen text messages showing photos of a skater’s first, second, third, and fourth revolution of a quad jump, with a timer under them that showed the process lasted little more than half a second—0.68 of a second to be precise—from takeoff to touchdown.

Trying these difficult jumps can be dangerous. Crashing on the hard ice over and over again can cause career-ending injuries. So for several decades, figure skating coaches have been able to strap a skater into a harness at the end of what looks like an elaborate fishing pole. In 50 years Weisiger had progressed from learning organically how to land high, tightly spiraled jumps because otherwise she would run into a wall at the rink, to using her phone to tell how high and long a skater was in the air while doing a quad.

Advances in technology give coaches the ability to help their skaters understand the physics of these jumps, but something more is at work here, Weisiger says.

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Cyclist Lorenzo Sinteur undergoes a maximum exercise test at the Centre for Human Drug Research in Leiden, Netherlands. The center performed a rare, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial on the effects of erythropoietin, or EPO, on cycling performance. Analysts found that the blood booster at the heart of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal does not improve actual cycling performance.

“Why wasn’t Dorothy Hamill doing triple jumps?” she asks. “She didn’t have to. Once women started to try triples, everyone had to do them. It’s like anything else: Competition pushes you along.”

In February in Pyeongchang, South Korea, women’s Olympic figure skating champion Alina Zagitova of Russia landed seven triple jumps in her free skate. Chen became the first man to attempt and land six quads in his free skate, finishing fifth overall after a poor short program.

Sometimes the march of progress in sports is simply the result of an athlete’s competitive fire.

To my unaided eye, a jump at the 1991 world track and field championships in Tokyo’s National Stadium looked monstrous. I had been watching the best long jumpers in the world for more than an hour, and American Mike Powell’s jump clearly was different. Technology would confirm what my eyes were telling me, but I already knew. The most legendary and seemingly untouchable individual record in Olympic sports, which had stood for a stunning 23 years, had just been broken.

as good as it gets?

World’s 10 best

performances by year

1921-2016

Athletic achievements improved for decades, in part because of new technology and the use of performance-enhancing steroids. With athletes under increased scrutiny, world records are still getting broken—but more incrementally. This could suggest that we are pushing the limits of our athletic potential.

Men

Women

100-meter dash

Marathon

Shot put

Annual

average

Individual

performance

1968

First Olympic drug testing

(narcotics and amphetamines)

1976

First Olympic

steroid testing

1987

Random drug

testing instituted

1920

1930

1940

1950

1960

1970

1980

1990

2000

2010

Current

world record

Darker colors indicate

overlapping performances

Percentage

achieved

of current

world record

80%

of current

world record

The steroid era

The introduction of ste-

roids affected women’s

records more than men’s,

perhaps because anabolic

steroids increase testos-

terone, which is naturally

occurring in only small

amounts in women.

60%

Dominant Kenyans

Over the past two decades,

Kenyan men (outlined

above) have dominated

the marathon, posting nearly

60 percent of each year’s top

10 fastest times.

Concentrated power

The war effect

Leaderboards of less popular

sports like shot put are

dominated by a few

individuals, such as New

Zealand’s Valerie Adams

(outlined above).

Athletic records were rare

during World War II. Many

elite athletes were called

to military duty, and most

international competitions

were canceled.

40%

Women’s marathon data available only from 1980

Jason Treat, NGM Staff; Meg Roosevelt

Sources: Adrien Marck, National Institute of Sport,

Expertise and Performance, France; IAAF

as good as

it gets?

Athletic achievements improved for

decades, in part because of new tech-

nology and the use of performance-

enhancing steroids. With athletes under

increased scrutiny, world records are still

getting broken—but more incrementally.

This could suggest that we are pushing

the limits of our athletic potential.

World’s 10 best

performances by year

1921-2016

Men

Women

100-meter dash

Marathon

Shot put

Annual

average

current

world record

Percentage

achieved

of current

world record

Current

world

record

60%

80%

40%

1920

1930

1940

1950

1960

1968

First Olympic drug

testing (narcotics

and amphetamines)

1970

1976

First Olympic

steroid testing

1980

1987

Random drug

testing instituted

1990

The steroid era

The introduction of ste-

roids affected women’s

records more than men’s,

perhaps because anabolic

steroids increase testos-

terone, which is naturally

occurring in only small

amounts in women.

2000

2010

80%

100%

Women’s marathon data available only

from 1980

Jason Treat, NGM Staff; Meg Roosevelt

Sources: Adrien Marck, National Institute

of Sport, Expertise and Performance,

France; IAAF

My fascination with the advancement of sports performance didn’t start on that warm, humid August evening, but it certainly got quite a boost. Two inches here and there might not seem like much in our daily lives, but that was almost exactly the distance between Bob Beamon’s landmark leap of 29 feet 2.39 inches, set at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, and Powell’s 29-foot, 4.36-inch jump that night in Tokyo.

All these years later, that moment fascinates me. Why? With everything science and computers and great minds can devise to help humans perform faster, higher, and stronger—and because a sport like track and field has progressed from cinder tracks to synthetic surfaces, from rudimentary footwear to famous shoe companies trying to outdo one another—record-breaking progress still came down to the work of one human being. Sports is now filled with scientists, coaches, and athletes who measure progress through analytics. But that night, the march of human performance had a face and a name: Mike Powell.

The story behind making sports history sometimes really isn’t that momentous. In this case, one athlete just became angry with the success of another and wanted to beat him.

I called Powell recently in Southern California to ask him to relive that moment. There was no particular science to that night, he told me.

Powell said he broke the record because he was pushed by a competitor: The great Carl Lewis, widely considered the best long jumper ever, was also in the field. Lewis never broke the world record himself. Unwittingly, though, he helped Powell do it. “I love Carl now, but back then I hated him,” Powell said. “So when we competed, he brought my energy level way up.”

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Research volunteer Yunna Sinskey walks on a treadmill mounted on a motion base inside a 360-degree virtual reality dome, which includes wall-mounted cameras and projectors at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. Reflective markers are placed on her body, allowing the 18 cameras mounted in the dome to capture her movements for a study on improved diagnosis and treatment of mild traumatic brain injury. Tracking movement patterns can also help diagnose injuries in athletes.

Right before Powell uncorked the record jump, Lewis leaped farther than anyone ever had, beating Beamon by a quarter inch. But the wind was blowing too hard at his back, so it didn’t count.

Powell can’t get the image out of his head nearly three decades later. “He ran past me, pumping his fist. That got me mad. It made it real personal. I had always been the skinny guy, the one picked on. It was happening again, right there. But I could do something about it this time. My body just took over and did what I needed to do.” Powell’s amazing jump is still the world record. “Carl raised the bar so high,” Powell said. “I knew I had to break a world record just to beat him.”

That’s the school-yard view of human performance—and a testament to the mind’s ability.

“I don’t think we have really tapped into the power of the brain,” says Gemmell, Ledecky’s Olympic coach. “That’s the next frontier over the next 30 years: how we train the brain like the body. That’s where the breakthroughs are going to come next.”

Christine Brennan is a national sports columnist for USA Today, a commentator for CNN, ABC News, PBS NewsHour, and NPR, and a best-selling author. She has covered 18 consecutive Olympics, starting with the 1984 Los Angeles Games.