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Review
. 2015 Sep;45(9):1263-1271.
doi: 10.1007/s40279-015-0347-2.

Has Athletic Performance Reached Its Peak?

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Free PMC article
Review

Has Athletic Performance Reached Its Peak?

Geoffroy Berthelot et al. Sports Med. .
Free PMC article

Abstract

Limits to athletic performance have long been a topic of myth and debate. However, sport performance appears to have reached a state of stagnation in recent years, suggesting that the physical capabilities of humans and other athletic species, such as greyhounds and thoroughbreds, cannot progress indefinitely. Although the ultimate capabilities may be predictable, the exact path for the absolute maximal performance values remains difficult to assess and relies on technical innovations, sport regulation, and other parameters that depend on current societal and economic conditions. The aim of this literature review was to assess the possible plateau of top physical capabilities in various events and detail the historical backgrounds and sociocultural, anthropometrical, and physiological factors influencing the progress and regression of athletic performance. Time series of performances in Olympic disciplines, such as track and field and swimming events, from 1896 to 2012 reveal a major decrease in performance development. Such a saturation effect is simultaneous in greyhound, thoroughbred, and frog performances. The genetic condition, exhaustion of phenotypic pools, economic context, and the depletion of optimal morphological traits contribute to the observed limitation of physical capabilities. Present conditions prevailing, we approach absolute physical limits and endure a continued period of world record scarcity. Optional scenarios for further improvements will mostly depend on sport technology and modification competition rules.

Figures

Fig. 1
Fig. 1
Best performances over time in a men’s 400 m; b women’s 400 m; c men’s and women’s 100 m freestyle swim; d men’s and women’s 100 m backstroke swim; e men’s and women’s 100 m breaststroke swim; f men’s and women’s 100 m butterfly swim; g records (black diamonds) and annual best performance (grey diamonds) in the Calaveras frog jump contest; and h men’s triple jump. Values shown are the single best result of the yearly top ten world performers for human competition (with black diamonds representing values for men and grey diamonds representing values for women). The black arrows indicate the introduction of polyurethane swimsuits in 2008, and the Olympic cycle is observable (with a ≈1 % progress every 4 years [17])
Fig. 2
Fig. 2
Evolution of mean a mass (kg) and b height (cm) of National Basketball Association (NBA), National Hockey League (NHL), National Football League (NFL) and baseball players [43]
Fig. 3
Fig. 3
Mean performance data for men in a swimming. Each black diamond represents the mean value of the top performance of the 80 best performers (100 and 200 m freestyle, butterfly, breaststroke, and backstroke in swimming, and 100 m to marathon in running). In a, Olympic periodicity is shown in the swimming events (grey lines and dates). A gain of around 3 % was established after the introduction of polyurethane swimsuits. a is summarized in a conceptual b depicting the physiological (black dashed line), sociological (wavy grey line), technological (grey dashed line), and environmental (grey solid U-shaped line) cycles of development
Fig. 4
Fig. 4
Ten best performances at the outdoor world archery championship for a men and b women between 1957 and 2009. Due to the change in the number of arrows allowed in competition, we normalized the performances as the ratio of the observed score against the maximum possible score each year. The decrease in top performances in archery in 1973 (black arrows) was due to very poor environmental conditions with heavy local storms

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