Four-minute mile? No problem. Twenty-nine-foot long jump? Cakewalk. The real question is, How far have we come and how far can we go as athletes?
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I’M STANDING IN AN ANCIENT landscape in East Africa. All around me white and yellow flowering acacia trees are abuzz with bees, wasps, and colorful cetoniid beetles. Baboons and impalas roam in the miombe bush. Herds of wildebeests and zebras thunder by; in the distance, elephants and rhinoceroses lumber over the rolling hills like prehistoric giants. Little seems to have changed in the last few million years. Caught up in searching for insects, I happen to peek under an inauspicious rock overhang and am taken aback by what I see.
Painted on the wall is a succession of sticklike human figures, clearly in full running stride. All are clutching delicate bows, quivers, and arrows, and all are running in one direction, left to right across the rock canvas. It’s a two- or three-thousand-year-old pictograph, with nothing particularly extraordinary about it—until I notice something that sends my mind reeling: The figure leading the procession has his hands thrust upward in what seems to me to be the universal sign of athletic victory. As both a former ultramarathoner and a biologist, I know this gesture to be reflexive in runners and other competitors who have fought hard and then feel the exhilaration of triumph over adversity.
This happened several years ago, in Zimbabwe’s Matobo National Park (formerly Matopos Park), but it remains for me an iconic reminder that the roots of our competitiveness go back very far and very deep. Between the marketing hype, the melodramatic background stories, and the sprawling spectacle of the millennial Olympic Games this September in Sydney will lurk the real reason we will tune in: an intense, innate, even visceral appreciation for the magnificence of the serious athlete’s body. The modern Olympics represent the ultimate test of our ancient faculties. We thrill to see athletic skill—abilities that most of us possess to a degree—raised to the utmost level. The Olympics are a product both of our dreams and of our indomitable drive for perfection, the best of what the mortal human body can achieve.
Looking at that African rock painting made me feel like I was witness to a kindred spirit, a man who had long ago vanished yet whom I understood as if we’d talked just a moment earlier. I was not only in the same environment and of the same mind as my unknown Bushman, I was also in the place that most likely produced our common ancestors. The artist had been here hundreds of generations before me, but that was only the blink of an eye compared to the aeons that have elapsed since a bipedal intermediate between our apelike and recognizably human ancestors left the safety of the forest for the savanna some four million years ago.
It wasn’t an easy transition. Indeed, it had fateful physiological and psychological consequences that are still deeply embedded in our bodies and our psyches. Standing before that long-lost victor in the struggle to survive, I was reminded of what I was, still am, and perhaps what we will forever be as long as we are human.
WE WERE ALL RUNNERS ONCE. Although some of us forget that primal fact, comparative biology teaches us that life on the plains generates arms races between predators and prey—and our ancestors definitely weren’t into unilateral disarmament. Meat was abundant, for those who could catch it or wrest it from the competition, i.e. leopards and lions, not to mention hyenas, jackals, and vultures. Because we primates weren’t superb runners, we needed alternatives to sheer speed to eat in the wide-open spaces. So we traveled in groups, racing overland to fresh-killed carcasses and chasing off scavengers. These skirmishes, as well as infighting with our own species—that is, our first true competitors—became the bridge to hunting live prey. The faster you could run, the more valuable you became in the new social groups based on the hunt.
In 1961 I spent a year collecting birds in Africa for Yale’s Peabody Museum, and I experienced, I think, what ancient hunters were up against. I’ll never forget my feelings of dreary claustrophobia during the months we spent in dense, dripping forests, nor, alternatively, the feeling of glorious exhilaration out on the open steppes. To catch even small birds, I had to wander extensively, half of each day, just as our ancestors must have done. By about two to three million years ago, they had a leg and foot structure almost identical to our own, and it’s reasonable to assume that they walked and ran like we do. While other predators rested, I was able to continue, albeit slowly, because we humans have one major physical advantage: We can sweat, copiously, which allows us to manage our internal temperature and extend our endurance. Most animals have no such mechanism. Through the ages and across the continents there are examples of men actually chasing down beasts that are much faster. In fact, there are modern reports of the Paiutes and Navajos of North America hunting pronghorn antelope on foot, patiently running down a stray till it drops in its tracks from exhaustion and then reverently suffocating the animal by hand.
A quick pounce and kill requires no dream. Dreams are the beacons that carry us far ahead into the hunt, into the future, and into the marathon. We have the unique ability to keep in mind what is not before the eye. Visualizing far ahead, we see our quarry, even as it recedes over the hills and into the mists. Those ancient hunters who had the longest vision—the most imagination—were the ones who persisted the longest on the trail and therefore were the ones who left more descendants. The same goes these days: Human beings with the longest vision tend to make the biggest mark. Vision allows us to reach into the future, whether it’s to kill a mammoth or an antelope, to write a book, or to achieve the record time in a race.
Now we chase each other rather than woolly mammoths. But the basic body movements required for hunting and for warfare—running, throwing, jumping—have become ritualized in the track and field events, which are still the heart and soul, the very essence, of the Olympics. The Games are simply mock wars waged in the spirit of camaraderie, though they retain the intensity of their origins. The difference is that in a contest with prey there is always an endpoint: We get it, or it gets away. In our races against one another, in our constant striving to better our achievements and set new records, there is no apparent end. Where, then, are the limits?
WORLD AND OLYMPIC RECORDS have been kept for more than a century, but over that span there never has been a year in which records have not been broken. Performances that were world-class only 50 years ago are almost routine now. Again and again, feats thought physiologically impossible have been surpassed. In 1954, Roger Bannister ran the mile in 3:59.40 to break the four-minute barrier and stun the world. But within six weeks even that improbable mark fell. Fast-forward to 1999 and Moroccan Hicham El Gerrouj lowered the record to 3:43.13.
So it goes: In the Mexico City Olympics of 1968, Bob Beamon shattered Ralph Boston’s world long-jump record of 27 feet, four and one-quarter inches with a jump of 29 feet, two and a half inches. For nearly 23 years Beamon’s record was considered to be beyond unbreakable, until the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo, where Carl Lewis came within one inch of it and Mike Powell actually beat it by two inches at the same meet.
The first modern record for the 100-meter dash was 11.0 seconds, set by Great Britain’s William MacLaren in 1867. It got chipped away over the next several decades until American Charles Paddock dropped it to 10.2 seconds in 1921. His time didn’t see a major improvement until 1956, when countryman Willie Williams ran a 10.1. Then, last year, U.S. sprinter Maurice Greene set a world record of 9.79.
The steady improvement in records of all sporting events may, at first glance, look like biological evolution, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Evolution might still have played a role shaping us back in the Ice Ages, when we were fragmented into small isolated populations, regularly dropping dead due to athletic deficiencies and other forms of bad luck. No more. Living as we now do, in large, increasingly homogenized populations, any mutation that might crop up and that could be of value for athletic performance (e.g. an enormously large lung capacity for marathoners) would quickly be diffused in the gene pool.
That’s not to say changes can’t happen. Could a species stuck with our bipedal design evolve and someday run as fast as ostriches? Maybe we’re still so unspecialized for the task of running that selective breeding could accomplish this. But even if we attempted that unthinkable experiment—if we bred humans like, say, racehorses, along lines of pedigree—the project would probably have to continue uninterrupted for hundreds or thousands of years. We have no idea what makes a Secretariat different from an also-ran, but if we want to beat a Secretariat, we begin with Secretariat genes. Still, if we did create human thoroughbreds, there’s good reason to believe the physical “improvement” would eventually stop; despite selective breeding, thoroughbreds haven’t gotten any faster in the last 100 years. Why should it be any different with us?
Genetically we’re pretty much the same as we’ve been for hundreds of thousands of years; the basic changes for running, throwing, jumping, and the like were made long ago, and the trajectory, and eventual endpoint, were determined then as well. Physiologically speaking, on average we may well be devolving, so to speak. If we picked one of our six billion brethren at random and had that person run against a fit-for-survival Pleistocene man or woman, there’s a good chance we’d come out the loser.
DON’T TELL THAT TO MICHAEL JOHNSON. To understand performances like his, it’s important to recognize that, in terms of genetics, training, and nutrition, a world-record performance is the far, far end of the normal distribution. Olympians don’t represent typical physiology. Far from it. World-class athletes are generally off the scale according to every parameter one can think of—physiological systems for muscles, enzymes, hormones, bone structure, and body build. Moreover, all of these superlatives have been bolstered by the best knowledge and execution of diet, rest, training, and stress management. In an Olympic athlete, more and more we’re looking at a freak, an elite specimen who is not like you or me and who is fit to do one thing well—likely at the expense of other things.
Each event has circumscribed specifications. For instance, the very best sprinters don’t need much aerobic capacity because they rely on a preponderance of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which contract quickly and anaerobically, meaning they don’t require oxygen to burn fuel. Those same athletes could not successfully run distance, because long-distance runners rely on a huge aerobic capacity and a larger percentage of slow-twitch fibers, which contract at a slower rate but can work for long periods, so long as they’re being continually supplied with oxygen. These traits are largely inherited: If your muscles are made up mostly of slow-twitch fibers, you’ll simply never be explosive. We might be able to do a lot to change the basic design we’re born with, but not to the point of achieving a world-beating performance.
In the early days of Olympic and world competition, the athletes were probably closer in ability to the average population. Nevertheless, they came from a very small pool out of the total population, and that pool came largely from the privileged class or those who, for one odd reason or another, decided to throw the javelin, long jump, sprint, or run the marathon. Such is not the case now. First, talent is actively solicited: Individuals are identified, nurtured, and encouraged to pursue their dreams to the near-exclusion of more distracting concerns, like milking the cows or otherwise making a living. A second and perhaps much more significant phenomenon is that the pool from which the talented are selected has expanded dramatically. Since 1896, when the first modern Olympics were held, the world population has quadrupled. What’s more, while Olympians were previously drawn only from Europe, Australia, and North America, now they also come from Asia, Africa, and South America. Statistically, by simply increasing the sample size, you increase the likelihood of having some individual runner who is faster than ever before in history (as well as one who is slower than ever).
The only real evolution has been in realms not directly related to biology. The most obvious factor in athletic improvement has been better technology. Running shoes are infinitely better. Vaulting poles morphed from ash to bamboo to aluminum to fiberglass, nearly doubling the record heights in the event. And of course, swimsuits have undergone all manner of makeovers, from wool trunks and tops in the early 1900s to skimpy Lycra numbers in the disco years to full-body suits debuting in Sydney called fastskins, which have a dimpled surface, much like a golf ball’s, to reduce drag.
Mirroring technological breakthroughs have been changes in technique, such as Dick Fosbury’s now-standard backward flop over the high-jump bar and swimmer David Berkoff’s dolphin kick in the backstroke. Training methods have also evolved. Germany’s Waldemar Gersheler used interval training to help his protégé, Rudolf Harbig, nab the world record of 1:46.60 in the 800-meter run in 1939. Arthur Lydiard of New Zealand helped Peter Snell take Olympic gold in the same event in 1960 and 1964 by advocating long, slow running to build endurance, and brutal hill work to build strength. And Britain’s Sebastian Coe, who in 1981 set an 800-meter world record that held for 16 years, used weight lifting in addition to Gersheler’s and Lydiard’s methods.
Such a multitude of factors makes it nigh impossible to predict limits, but physical limits must exist. In just one century the law of diminishing returns has already set in; in certain track events, decades pass in which records improve by no more than hundredths of a second. Take the 200 meter run: In 1968, the world record stood at 19.83 seconds; in 1996 Michael Johnson lowered it to 19.32 seconds—about a half a second in 28 years.
None of this is good news for the human spirit. We need to keep desire alive. We depend on faith; records will fall only to those who believe it is possible. The heroes of my boyhood—Jim Ryun, Peter Snell, Herb Elliott, Steve Prefontaine, Billy Mills—achieved their status and success through sheer guts and work. They aspired to be gods—and to my high school cross-country mates and me, they were gods on some level. Yet the real reason we saw Pre and the others as heroes was that we secretly believed we were elementally equal. We were convinced that, if we only tried, if we did what they did, then we too could rank among the gods. To think that if they lived and ran today they would all be left in the dust by a herd of modern runners is devastating to my psyche. At our core we are endurance predators driven by dreams, spurred on by the antelope that we can’t see but know is out there, somewhere, up ahead. To continue pushing, though, we must believe it’s catchable—if only we apply ourselves.
Like the North American antelope’s residual ability to outrun a cheetah—a cat that became extinct on the continent some 10,000 years ago—our abilities to run, throw, and jump are leftovers in our survival tool kits. As such, we use them in play because they are instinctually important to us. I’m not as athletically capable as an antelope or a bird or an Olympic athlete, but I enjoy my own capacities and I’m inspired to stretch them by seeing what others can do. I’m humbled by what is routine to the songbird or sandpiper, awed by their ability to fly unbelievably long distances to and from specific pinpoints on the globe.
Some might argue that, if I were a bird, I would not be able to enjoy my fantastic annual journeys, following the sun from perpetual daylight on the Arctic tundra to the pampas in Argentina and back again. But I think they are wrong. What makes the blackpoll warbler strike out south in the fall after a cold front is probably not fundamentally different from what motivates me to jog down a country road on a warm and sunny day. We’re both responding to ancient urges. Proof that, in our case, it’s impossible to extinguish our primal enthusiasm for the chase.