In 160 years, the world record for pole vaulting has gone from 3.15 m to 6.16 m. In 2017, Canadian swimmer Kyllie Masse drops the world record in the 100m backstroke. How to explain that after hundreds of years of sports competitions, the best global records continue to be beaten? Can our physical limits always be pushed back? And if science had a role to play ?
Materials at the service of performance
In 1936, at the Berlin Games, Jessie Owens ran the 100m in 10.2 seconds while 73 years later, Usain Bolt broke the world record of the distance queen in 9.58. Can we really compare these two performances when one starts on a dirt track with holes in the ground as a starting block, while the famous Jamaican benefits from the latest technological advances for the world record? The evolution of the materials used in the sport contributed to the improvement of the performances and will certainly continue to do so. In sports such as athletics or swimming, the correlation between the emergence of new materials and sport progress is easily measurable, since these are sports where records can be set. However, other sports have benefited of technical progress.
Take the case of tennis where the transition between wooden rackets and aluminum rackets, then carbon fiber has significantly reduced the number of tendinitis.
Another good example would be ice hockey. There was a time when goaltenders stood mask-less and kicked at pucks while wearing 300-pound waterlogged leather pads. And while players didn’t get the puck off the ice like they do today, the goalies still took their lumps and some of them got seriously injured. With the apparition of new materials such as fiberglass and Kevlar, goaltenders are more confident than ever between the pipes. Protective equipment has gotten lighter and allows for a bigger range of movement, all while being safer than ever. If we turn to the side of the disabled, this trend is even more accentuated for the categories requiring the use of armchairs or prostheses. Today, these devices are real jewels of technology combining lightness, strength and flexibility. Among the highlights between 1960, at the first Paralympic Games and today, it is possible to mention the first participation of the South African double amputee athlete who competed in the 400m at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Today, despite the controversy surrounding the question of the advantage of wearing carbon fiber prostheses, for amputee athletes, it is undeniable that the performance gap between disabled and able-bodied athletes is narrowing.
Biochemistry, biomechanics, knowledge to push our physical limits
Of course, the improvement in performance is not strictly related to the materials used. The training methods, the technique of realization, the recovery process and the nutrition are all aspects on which many research teams are looking. The knowledge in physiology and especially those related to the respiratory chain (explaining the production of ATP, the fuel of our muscles) made it possible to highlight the different energy systems. The understanding of these systems allows the implementation of training sessions adapted to different sports specialties. The times and intensity of the race, in addition to the recovery, will not be the same for a 100m, 400m and marathon runner. In certain disciplines, particular training conditions are also used to modify physiology. For example, altitude training promotes the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen and therefore improve endurance capabilities. The contributions of biomechanics also play an important role. This consists of studying motion through the use of tools like photocells, high-resolution video and force plates. It makes it possible to analyze and optimize the athlete’s gestural execution. On the other side of the coin If today all these scientific and technological breakthroughs make it possible to freak out the chronos, questions of a moral and ethical nature arise. The professionalization of sport is driving athletes, coaches and medical teams to push physiological limits through drug use. Control of the morphology, increase of the force, muscular power and improvement of the oxygenation are the three main effects sought during these doping practices. Doping is not a new phenomenon since the first reported cases of doping date back to 1865. However, the current methods are more and more sophisticated leading to a real race between anti-doping bodies and clandestine laboratories putting in place these methods. It is not uncommon to see an athlete stripped of his titles, many years after his victories. The suspension period of athletes who have used doping is currently under debate, particularly following the recent publication of a scientific study on « muscle memory ». This expression is used to describe the fact that an athlete continues to enjoy the benefits that doping brings several years after stopping doping treatment. Nevertheless this theory remains very controversial and several points discredit it.