There are limitations to what the human body can achieve. We can jump only so high before the planet’s gravitational pull insists on keeping us on the ground. We can run as fast as we do mainly because we only have two legs and our thigh and calf muscles are only so big, and running upright, we do not have the aerodynamics of a greyhound or a cheetah. Swimming may be a complete workout, but the great resistance water offers leaves our bodies useful for little more than short bursts, at not much of a velocity either. Still, among us live superathletes, those who have not only become masters of their discipline, but who keep on shattering any perceptions we might have of the supposed limitations of the body.
But what are the limits and how far off are these superathletes from reaching those limits? And what will aid them in getting to the absolute boundary of human performance?
Surely, a human being cannot run the 100-metre dash in four seconds. I think it is safe to bet your left leg on that fact. The physics of the feat are just impossible. No matter how tall a sprinter is, he just won’t have that stride. No matter how strong he is, the torque needed is too great. The air is too thick and the distance just too far. A Bugatti Veyron, which accelerates to 100km/h in 2.7 seconds, can only manage a 100-metre dash in 3.7 seconds. Yet, sprinters keep getting closer. Usain Bolt set the world record at 9.58 seconds during the 2009 World Championships in Berlin to become the fastest man to ever exist.
Now, imagine Bolt at his absolute legal maximum – with the most up-to-date gear, most accommodating tartan, and even a favourable tailwind. In this hypothetical scenario of human versus air, what time could be achieved? Surely faster than 9.58 seconds – but nowhere near the Veyron’s time. Yet, conceivably, an actual number exists that reflects the true limitations of the human body.
Very few records enjoy smug periods of longevity, but at some stage, records must get set that cannot be broken altogether, once and for all – like the hypothetical time the perfect Usain Bolt would do. A future tennis player could exist who will be so skilled, quick and strong that he will win each and every Grand Slam in a 10-year career; imagine 40 Grand Slams. Federer now has 16, a pipsqueak compared to what may be possible. Theoretically this should happen; someone should be able post a 100-metre dash in a time that simply cannot be broken – not by another human.
In the meantime, records do tumble, but they are never irrefutably destroyed. Instead: an inch here, a second there, one or two trophies more than the previous “greatest of all time” and a career is satisfied, promising the manic audience that this time it’s really for real. Only for the process to be repeated by the next wunderkind – Sampras took it from Borg, Federer took it from Sampras and Nadal is next in line (or is it Djokovic?). So there cannot be a “greatest” athlete in history, in any sport. Because as soon as Usain Bolt, Lionel Messi, Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and any other current-day superstar achieve their goals, a usurper seems poised to crawl out of the woodwork and better them, much the same way these guys destroyed their own childhood heroes’ records.
Evolution tells us that the basic human shape will take eons to shift radically. While the sandglass fills slowly, athletes grasp at anything that may help them to chisel away at records that were previously thought to be indestructible. Some break the law, some rewrite the book. The desire to become the best in one’s sport code often pushes young athletes to do whatever it takes. There are great incentives, from huge salaries to demanding fans to lucrative endorsement deals. For many, there is little time to waste because records are continuously broken and, as time passes, it is becoming more and more difficult to win. This is why, when their own bodies are just not enough, many athletes seek artificial assistance to have an impact on the sporting world. How many of those whom we consider “the greatest” have, in fact, had help from medical treatments, technological advancements and the optimisation of the environments in which they perform? More importantly, how many have already come close to their equivalent of that hypothetical Bugatti-like 100-metre dash?
Lionel Messi, who is the greatest footballer in the world today, was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency at age 11 when he was playing football for a local club in his home city of Rosario, Argentina. River Plate, an Argentine behemoth in the world of football, wanted him but they could not afford the medical treatments he needed. Carles Rexach, the sporting director of FC Barcelona, spotted Messi’s talents and offered the diminutive playmaker a contract written on a napkin. Today that napkin is worth R2.6 billion. That is the buy-out clause of Messi’s contract with FC Barcelona until 2016. But there is something significant about Messi’s success: he was altered by medical care, hormones, nutrition and who knows what else. Rexach spotted Messi’s potential and encouraged it to grow, quite literally. He may still be the shortest player in Europe, but will we ever know exactly how much these enhancements affected his ability?
Drugs have a significant influence in nearly all sports. That is not to imply that Lionel Messi is guilty of any kind of illegal drug use, he had a medical condition that was treated. But would Messi have become as great had it not been for FC Barcelona’s generous care? Would Tiger Woods have been able to win the playoff that clinched the 2008 US Open had it not been for the fact he was high on painkillers for a busted anterior cruciate ligament in his knee? Every winner of the Tour De France has had some sort of cocktail (that may not be true, but I’m sticking with it). It is undeniable that pressure in sport leads to substance abuse, and then you get names like Floyd Landis, Ben Johnson, Barry Bonds and Marion Jones. All thought to be the best at the time; they all used banned substances.
The drugs themselves are becoming more and more plentiful, more and more complex and difficult to trace.
Technical speaking, consider Michael Phelps, who won eight gold medals at a single Olympic Games in Beijing 2008. Like Bolt, Phelps not only won gold, but also broke records in each event – totalling seven world records and one Olympic record. I do not think that Phelps’s out of the pool puff on the bong (images of which surfaced after Beijing) did much in the way of supplementing to the point of greatness – Marijuana is no human growth hormone. Yet, he had other help. Technology and circumstance must have had an impact on Phelps’s success. Criticisms about performance-aiding swimsuits and how they affect the body’s movement in the water were raised. (Didn’t Mark Spitz win his seven Olympic medals dripping-wet-moustache-and-all in 1972?). Then, there was the issue of the swimming pool used at the Beijing National Aquatics Centre. It had 10 lanes, only eight of which were used for competition, so the outside lanes were empty, plus it was much deeper, allowing for both water displacement and less turbulence. Here was the same athlete’s body, but aided by an improved environment.
Swimming, we should add, is by no means the most technologically progressive sport. Footballs are lighter and fly through the air differently than they did in Pele’s time. Tennis rackets now just weigh a few grams, and hit harder than ever before. Fields are treated differently. Cameras are used where they weren’t used before, aiding refereeing decisions, ensuring the numbers go to those who deserve them. The material used to make kits is changing, providing for better movement and better circulation. Textiles are different. Technological advancements allow for every element that can in some way benefit the athlete, to change.
By turning to technology, we are not suggesting that the human body is flawed in any way, though. It functions just fine, most of the time, for what we need to get done in order to survive and prosper. It may betray us in its appearance at times, yet the essential design is something that could even be considered endearing: our thumbs to hold things and our eyes to see colours, ears which enable us to hear Wagner, big toes for balance, arms that reach, legs that kick and magnificent, treasured sex organs (although sex might have required less acrobatics if perhaps they were situated in a more accessible point, for example where your elbow is?).
Hooked on the thrill of performance as a species though, normal activity in all its endearing glory is just not enough. We push the body. We engineer speed and strength with the help of chemicals and kinetics in order to achieve these desires and goals, to win praise and medals. Whether it be egoism, sport in the name of fun, or pure scientific experiment and curiosity – spectator sports and celebrity proves just how fascinated we are with the activity of the body. And the end is still nowhere in sight.
By Luka Vracar
Published by Play South Africa July 2012