Is there a limit to human capacity?

The likes of sprinter Usain Bolt extend the bounds of the possible faster than science can draw them.

The American writer David Foster Wallace was an outstanding youth tennis player, and also wrote some wonderful essays on sports. Possibly, Wallace’s most famous essay on the subject was “Federer as a Religious Experience”, about the experience of watching Roger Federer (Wallace travelled to Wimbledon in 2006 to get a close-up view of Federer) and its effect. “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports,” Wallace wrote, “but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. … The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its force and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body."

Wallace (who suffered from severe clinical depression all his adult life and committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46) earned a posthumous reputation as a sort of a latter-day prophet. It may not be coincidence that, in recent years, in any discourse on sports, there are many more voices that avoid the ugly, belligerent and banal terminology which usually characterizes this discourse, focusing rather on probing the abilities of the human body, celebrating its achievements and in fact, being reconciled with it. These voices usually come from the direction of science, and one of them belongs to John Brenkus: the creator, director, and moderator of the SportScience program broadcast on ESPN.

Thirty-nine year old Brenkus uses a team of engineers, physicists, and special effects people, in order to think up and execute crazy experiments (such as an experiment to prove, by means of a Hollywood special effects expert, that Kobe Bryant really can leap over an accelerating Aston Martin as in the bogus viral video that was distributed on the net a few years ago), or in order to proceed to a scientific analysis of the deeds of the world’s best athletes.

LeBron James, for example, Brenkus revealed in one of his programs, exerts force of more than 315 kilograms when hopping on one leg in order to dunk the ball. This suffices to send his 113 kilogram body soaring to a height of 1.10 meters above the parquet. As James’ arm rises just before dunking, it moves in an arc of 130 degrees, creating an angular speed of more than 1,125 degrees per second: the same speed as a Chinook blade creates (the Chinook being the standard transportation helicopter of the US military).

Another reason why James’ dunks are so forceful is that his arm span in contrast to calculations made by Leonardo da Vinci in his iconic 1490 drawing “The Vitruvian Man” is ten centimeters longer than his height (2.03 meters). The excess is located in James’ hands, which at 23.5 centimeters are almost 20% larger than those of an average man (18.9 centimeters), enabling him to lock his hand on the ball near take-off and create a centripetal force of 456 kilograms as he moves through the air at a speed of 87 kph. This means that if James were to convert vertical speed into a horizontal fist, Brenkus explained, he would be able to hit harder than Mike Tyson at his peak.

Three months ago, following an injury that rendered Tiger Woods hors de combat for a long period of time (he did not play for four months), Brenkus and his SportScience team probed the physical problems of the most talented golfer of all time. It transpires that in long shots, Woods accelerates the club, in less than a third of a second, to an average speed of two hundred kph three times greater than the acceleration of a race-car. When Woods strikes that fast, the centrifugal force causes his club to feel as if it weighs 45 kilograms (in actual fact, it weighs 83 grams) and creates tremendous pressure on the shoulders, the elbows and the wrists. But Woods’ biggest problem is his left knee (it has undergone four surgical procedures to date), which, in every such stroke, experiences rotational forces 15 times his body weight. The cumulative weight that has rested on Woods’ left knee in his 15 year career has been more than twenty tons, and that is without taking into account the millions of balls he hits in training.

At the same time as his analysis of contemporary sporting phenomena, Brenkus has also been working in recent years on a more ambitious project: an attempt to determine the points of human perfection that will show up some time in the near or distant future, in the range of sporting activities. In the project, a book that has been given the title of "The Perfection Point", Brenkus determines that the longest golf stroke that man can make will be to a distance of 496.5 meters (the current record, set in 1974, is 471 meters), taking into consideration factors such as muscle force, leveraging, suppleness, and a standard golf ball, at today’s standards. The fastest one mile (1,600 metre) run will stop the watch at 3:18:87 minutes (the current world record is 3:43:13); and the highest leap for dunking will be to a height of 4.4 meters (more or less to the edge of the game clock above the basket).

Brenkus, who starts each chapter with a scientific analysis of the relevant world champion and continues on from there, also deals with the question of the heaviest weight that a person will be able to lift, and the longest home run that can be hit in baseball, and the longest time for which a person can hold his breath; and of course, he addresses the greatest question of all: what, if any, is the utmost limit of human capability in the one hundred metre run?

Bolt in the role of Jesus

The never-ending discussion in the scientific community over the bounds of human capacity in the one hundred meters run can be divided into two periods: pre- and post-Usain Bolt. Before 2008, when Bolt burst forth like a volcano, the world record had been improved by little more than a second (from 10.8 seconds to 9.7 seconds) over a period of one hundred years, and the outer limit of human speed was a matter of interest mainly to mathematicians.

Reza Noubary, a professor of mathematics, computer sciences and statistics at the University of Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, and the author of “An Introduction to Statistics through Sport”, estimated, pre-Bolt, “with 95% certainty”, that the outer limit of human capacity in the one hundred metre race was 9.44 seconds. Tetsuya Tabata, director of the Institute of Evolution and Data Analysis in Japan, used an equation that had been worked out in accordance with the progression of the world record, in order to determine, pre-Bolt, that the outer limit was 9.45 seconds. Mathematicians like Tabata and Noubary arrive at their forecasts without taking into consideration man’s physiological attributes: they built statistical models on the basis of the evolution of the world record, which was consistent even though slow, and attested to a not very remote stopping point. These models, which estimated that an outcome of 9.69 seconds (the record Bolt set at the Beijing Games in 2008) was not to be expected until 2030, proved to be problematic at best.

John Einmahl, a Professor of Statistics from Tilburg University in the Netherlands, chose a different model. He documented the best times of 762 male sprinters and 469 female sprinters between the years 1991 and 2008, and used extreme value theory a branch of statistics that endeavours to predict extreme events such as floods of once in a century, or seismic movements in the share market that deviate significantly from the mean to arrive at the conclusion that a man’s utmost speed limit for the 100 meters was 9.21 seconds and that of a woman, 9.88 seconds.

Peter Weyand, a physiologist and a researcher into the biomechanics of running at the Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas, is convinced that mathematical models of the limits of human speed will never attain scientific validity, since such models “must assume that everything that has happened in the past will continue to happen in the future”. And someone like Bolt, so Weyand told “Wired” magazine, is the best example of the fact that mathematicians simply cannot predict the advent of athletic mutations such as the world has never seen.

Minimum contact with the ground

Weyand is considered the leading US expert in the sport of sprinting, and specialises in overland movement: in the nineties he taught at Harvard and conducted experiments which examined the movement of animals such as the cheetah, the kangaroo and the wolverine, on running machines, in order to understand their mechanics. But Weyand was also the first to admit that the “scientific” understanding of sprinters is fairly immature. “The one thing that we all understand about sprinters is that speed depends on how hard the runner’s foot hits the ground. Someone like Bolt hits the ground with a force of 450 kilograms, and we simply do not know how he does it. For example, we understand precisely how much of a weight somebody can lift we can take the person’s body structure and his muscle mass and estimate precisely how much weight he can lift. But world-class sprinters create double the force of our estimates, and we do not know why.”

What Weyand does know is that, contrary to the theorem that held sway in science until not long ago, the amount of force that man can create will not be that which will determine the outer limit of capability in the one hundred meters. In April 2010, Weyand (with three other colleagues) published a research paper on the subject entitled “The Biological Limits of Running Speed are Set from the Ground Up”, in the Journal of Applied Physiology. “The prevailing concept that speed is limited by the force with which the limbs can hit the running surface is very reasonable”, Weyand wrote. “If someone reckons that the most elite sprinters can exert a force of between 360 kilograms and 450 kilograms with one limb at each step, it is easy to believe that the runners are apparently operating at or close to the force peak of their muscles and limbs. However, our new data clearly show that this is no coincidence. The limbs are capable of exerting forces far greater than those that are being seen today at top speeds in short distance runs”.

Weyand and his team used a running machine that can reach a speed of more than 64 kph (When Bolt set, two years ago, in the World Championship in Berlin, the current world record in the one hundred meters at 9.58 seconds, he ran at an average speed of a little more than 37 kph, peaking at almost 48 kph) and to measure precisely how much force is exerted on the surface whenever a foot lands on it. The subjects were asked to run at different speeds and in different forms, including hopping on one foot and running backwards. The researchers discovered that the force exerted on the ground while hopping, on a running machine at top speed, is 30% or more higher than the force exerted in running forward at top speed, while the forces created by the muscles active in hopping were between 1.5 and two times greater than in ordinary running.

After proving that man’s muscles deserve far more credit than they are getting, the researchers reached the conclusion that the critical biological limitation on speed is time or more precisely, the time remaining to the runners to exert force on the ground while running, since in the one hundred metre run, the feet of world class sprinters come into contact with the ground for less than one tenth of a second per step, and the peak force is exerted in less than 0.05 seconds. Therefore the limit of a man’s capacity actually depends on how fast his muscles can contract in order to exert force on the ground.

“Our simple predictions”, says Matthew Bundle, Weyand’s research partner, “indicate that the muscle contraction speeds that will permit the exertion of maximum or close to maximum force will enable running speeds of between 56 and 64 kph, and even more”.

One hundred meters in 41 steps

World class sprinters are built so as to contract their muscles quickly. The muscles of the typical human skeleton strike a balance between fast muscular fibres (which enable rapid contraction of the muscles and create a large amount of power but tire quickly) and slow fibres (that use oxygen, which is to say they are aerobic, and can contract over time without tiring) on which long distance runners rely. Sprinters’ legs show a different breakdown: 70% of the muscles are rapid and 30% are slow, which is what enables them to exert so much force so quickly.

Truly special sprinters, such as Bolt, "Time Magazine" was told by Scott Trapp, head of the Human Capabilities Laboratory at the Ball State University of Indiana, have another quality that separates them from the rest of humanity: super-fast muscles, that operate at twice the speed of ordinary fast muscles and create even more force. With ordinary people, the super fast muscles account for 1% - 2% of the muscle mass; with Bolt they account for 25%.

This is not Bolt’s only special quality. Bolt rears to a height of 1.96 meters: too tall for a sprinter according to an article that was published in the "Journal of Sports Science & Medicine", showing that, since the nineties, the world’s leading sprinters have stood at between 1.79 meters and 1.92 meters. These figures are no coincidence. Height provides an advantage in length of stride (Bolt’s stride reaches 2.44 meters: in the race in which he reached 9.58 seconds in Berlin he finished the one hundred meters in 41 steps; Tyson Jay, the American who finished second, and who stands at 1.80 meters, did the distance in 44.5 steps. The legendary Carl Lewis, at 1.92 meters, at his peak needed between 43 and 44 steps, but the taller the sprinter, the longer it takes him to steady his body and reach his maximum speed.

“Being tall is really a drawback”, says Weyand. “Bolt is simply a freak. Generally speaking, the smaller you are, the stronger you are in relation to your weight. Bolt upsets the laws of biology with his initial dash. He is good at the initial dash, and he isn’t supposed to be”.

Analysis of Bolt’s run in Berlin at ten-meter intervals shows that he was the fastest at every stage of the race (his fastest interval was the fourth, between sixty and eighty meters, in which he ran at an average speed of 44.72 kph). Ralph Mann, a biomechanics expert who works with the American Athletics Association, has a partial explanation for Bolt’s unlikely initial dash. When, at the starting point, Bolt leans on the starting blocks, his behind is naturally higher than that of the other runners, and her therefore “creates power from the monstrous muscle, the Gluteus Maximus”. Still, says Mann, Bolt “is not supposed to be in the lead after twenty meters. If he were seventh at that stage, I would be impressed. Extraordinary is too weak an expression. He is stunning as a starter.”

Smashing the nine second barrier

Bolt, who will again focus the eyes of the world in the World Championship in Daegu, South Korea (which will take place in the week of August 27 to September 4), thinks he can “do something special like, for example, 9.4 seconds (in the one hundred meters) or 18 seconds (in the two hundred meters)”, at the Olympic Games in London in a year’s time. These figures bring us close to unimaginable limits: is it possible that in our lifetime, someone will run one hundred meters in 9.0 seconds?

Ato Boldon, the wonderful sprinter from Trinidad and Tobago who won four Olympic medals (three bronze and one silver) in the one hundred and two hundred meters at Atlanta in 1996 and at Sidney in the two hundred, told the new Internet magazine "Grantland" that in order to answer this question “you have to think like a sprinter. And sprinters believe that one day someone will run the one hundred meters and the stopwatch will show 0.00. And when a sprinter thinks that way, he is not trying to delude himself. That is how you must think. This idea of human limits is exactly what we are competing against. It’s the thought of running 8.99 that brings you down to 9.58. That is how it works”.

Boldon would not bet that man would go below 9.0 meters in the next forty years, because “it‘s harder to polish a pen than a tractor.” But oddly enough, it is from the scientific aspect of the debate that some people think that it is not an impossible goal. “I would not take the 9.0 seconds off the table”, says Weyand. “Scientists do not like to make such predictions, and for good reason. A world record is an extreme fringe appearance, and strange things happen at these fringes. I must take off my scientist’s hat in order to make such a declaration, and simply speak as man in the street. But my gut feeling is that it will probably happen in our lifetime, and that feeling is powered by the incentives of modern sport”.

The generous incentives in modern sport have caused, are causing, and will continue to cause athletes to use energizers of the forbidden sort. But performance enhancing drugs are not very relevant when it comes to a scientific discussion of the utmost limit of human capability, writes John Brenkus in The Perfection Point, since for the sake of the goal of determining the absolute limits of human capability, more or less anything goes. To remove them (the drugs) from the system of considerations is to put artificial limits on the attainment of perfection.

Brenkus states in his book that man’s point of perfection in the one hundred meters is 9.01 seconds. His calculations include running in conditions of maximum height and wind in accordance with the rules, and anticipated changes in human physical attributes over time. A long time will pass, according to Brenkus, until this inconceivable result appears on the stopwatch: one hundred years, and then, he claims, the number can get lower, since a situation in which in order to break the nine seconds barrier only two hundredths of a second are required “it is simply not an option for humanity to give up on it”.

Physical and technological drugging

Even if science prefers to ignore the performance enhancing substances in its discussion of the utmost limit of human capability, it cannot be denied that drugs had an important role in the history of athletics in particular and of sport in general. In the days of the Iron Curtain, countries such as the USSR and East Germany systematically drugged their sportsmen and women as part of the drive to make the Olympic Games one of the arenas of struggle against the West, and in the eighties, the West, too, assimilated drugs into its sporting culture.

The ultimate drugged sportsman, of course, was the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson. Johnson made his breakthrough in the 1987 World Championship in Rome, in which he shattered the world record in the one hundred meters (from 9.93 seconds to 9.83), and a year later set a new record (9.79 seconds) in the Olympic Games in Seoul. Three days after Johnson’s fantastic showing, steroids were found in a urine sample he gave. Johnson ultimately admitted using steroids throughout the 80s, was forced to give back his medals, and his records were eliminated.

The female version of Johnson at the Seoul games, minus the bit about testing positive for drugs, was Florence Griffith Joyner (wonderfully nicknamed Flo Jo). Griffith Joyner, whose best achievement until 1988 had been a silver medal at two hundred meters in the World Championship in Rome, set, at age 29, in the American tests, an unlikely world record in the one hundred meters (10.49 seconds, 27 hundredths of a second off the previous record) , which no woman has even tickled to this day, and went on to add another crazy record in Seoul: 21.34 seconds in the two hundred meters, an improvement of 37 hundredths of a second off the previous record. Griffith Joyner retired shortly after the Seoul games and met her death under mysterious circumstances (the official cause of death was an epileptic seizure) ten years later, at the age of 29, her heritage wrapped in suspicion.

Matters such as heritage were of no concern to male and female sprinters in the 90s and the beginning of the twenty first century. British runner Linford Christie, Olympic champion in the one hundred meters in the Barcelona 1992 games, was suspended for two years in 1999 for using steroids. The American Tim Montgomery, former husband of Marion Jones, set a world record of 9.78 seconds in 2002, which was erased due to his involvement in the Balco affair (a drug laboratory in San Francisco that supplied steroids to baseball and athletics stars). Likewise, the record of the American Justin Gatlin (9.77 seconds in 2006) was erased for the same reason. Among the women, Marion Jones, who won five gold medals in Sydney 2000, followed in Montgomery’s footsteps, and although she was never caught, admitted having used drugs in 2008, and was sentenced to six months imprisonment for perjury in the Balco investigation.

Along with the proliferation of drugs in athletics, they also penetrated the sport of swimming, although in a lesser volume. In the nineties, China, which had begun aiming for world sporting dominance, imported trainers from East Germany and instituted a drugging program (primarily hormones) which resulted in 12 (out of 16) gold medals in the women’s swimming contests in the 1994 world championship. The Chinese program was dismantled at the end of that decade, but the swimming world turned to other horizons. New swimsuits made of polyurethane, a material that significantly promotes floating, enabled swimmers to shave whole seconds of their times in a phenomenon that became known as “technological drugging.”

The result of this drugging was 43 world records in the world championship in Rome two years ago. In 2010, the International Swimming Association outlawed the swimsuits, and in the world championship in Shanghai, which took place in the summer, only two world records were achieved.

This article was originally published in "Globes" Hebrew weekend magazine "G" before Usain Bolt's disqualification from the 100 meters event at the World Athletics Championships in Daegu.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - - on September 1, 2011

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2011

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