I had trouble figuring out how to begin this article and also how to keep this article from being too technical, dry, and intellectually-based. After all, most people follow sports because they are fun and are a pleasant diversion from work and other stressful things in life.
And judging from comments made by sports fans on sports radio talk shows and on sports sites on the Internet, apparently not many intellectuals are rabid sports fans.
That being said, I find the topic of humans' capabilities and possible limits in athletic accomplishments to be fascinating and I hope I can make this interesting for you. Maybe not as exhilarating as watching Usain Bolt run (whose performance at the 2008 Olympics inspired me to write this article), but interesting none the less.
For purposes of our discussion (for simplicity's sake since the concept is the same for longer distances or any distance in swimming), I am going to deal with the men's 100 meter dash and assuming the runner did/does not use steroids.
Also, I am going to assume that human beings will be around forever, even though—for various reasons—this seems unlikely.
At the heart of this discussion is this paradox: while it seems safe to conclude that humans will never be able to run the 100 meter dash in 1/100 of a second (to give you an extreme example), it also seems safe to conclude to that no matter the world record time in the 100 meter dash (currently 9.69 seconds), someone will always find a way to lower it by 1/100 or 1/1000 of a second.
I do not pretend to have an answer for you, which, of course, is why it is a paradox and why I find it fascinating.
At some point, you would think, the world record would get so low and at the same time, we would have exhausted all the ways to improve an athlete's performance (nutrition, training (physical and mental), increased competition, interbreeding of athletes, equipment, technique, and scientific (blood volume and muscle-fiber), that there would be no way we could lower it anymore.
Then a once-every-generation super athlete such as Bolt comes around and under ideal conditions, he lowers it by 1/100 or 1/1000 of second. Or, some genius, does find a new way to improve an athlete's performance. Either way, we are back to were we started. Hmmm.
The world record in the men's 100 meter dash was 10.6 seconds in 1912 and and almost 100 years later it almost a full second lower. (In fact, it might be a full second lower right now if Bolt had not started showboating at 80 meters at the 2008 Olympics.)
That is about 1/10 of a second per decade, however, the progression has been slower since 1960 when the world record was set at 10.0. (After 1976, the IAAF required fully automatic timing to the hundredth of a second for events 400 metres and under when submitted for record consideration.)
The great Jesse Owens set the world record in 1936 at 10.2 seconds and it was not broken for 20 years (although it might have been broken during that time period if they had the automatic timing to 1/00 of a second—we will never know).
I just point that out because during that time period people might have thought runners times were at a plateau, but we know now that they were not.
In fact, when Michael Johnson shattered the world record in 1992 by .4 of a second (19.32 previously 19.72), he demonstrated that substantial improvements are still possible even in the sprints.
And with Bolt, who broke Johnson's record at the 2008 Olympics (19.30 into a .9 mile per hour head wind) on the eve of his 22nd birthday, more substantial improvements seem likely in both the 100 and 200 meters.
Not to my extreme example time of 1/100 of a second, however, I still cannot help thinking there will always be a way to lower the 100 meter record (or any longer distance, of course) by 1/00 or 1/000 of a second. Which, means, of course, we are right back to were we started.
And I find it fascinating—I hope you at least find it interesting.