Can we predict an ultimate limit to human performance?
Improvement in sports records tends to level off, although astounding athletes like sprinter Usain Bolt can still sometimes leap ahead of everyone else.
Mathematically, the technique to use here is called extreme value theory:
This allows statisticians to estimate how far the extreme of a probability distribution extends, even if we have not sampled it in reality. Applying this technique to the existing records of times over 100 m indicates an ultimate limit of between 9.3 and 9.5 seconds. Bolt’s current record stands at 9.58, and he beat the previous record holder by 0.16 seconds.
Athletes improve through competition, but animals can be bred for high performance. Even so, records tend to level off. Timings from events run over the same course for many years typically show only slow improvement. So any species, unaided, has performance limits that are unlikely to change. Humans, though, have technology, which can be a game-changer.Lead image:
Nick Webb/Flickr CC BY