Athletic Performance

Several related articles on athletic performance have come out this week.

1. We Are Nowhere Close to the Limits of Athletic Performance (Nautilus)

…Mike Israetel, a professor of exercise science at Temple University, has estimated that doping increases weightlifting scores by about 5 to 10 percent. Compare that to the progression in world record bench press weights: 361 pounds in 1898, 363 pounds in 1916, 500 pounds in 1953, 600 pounds in 1967, 667 pounds in 1984, and 730 pounds in 2015. Doping is enough to win any given competition, but it does not stand up against the long-term trend of improving performance that is driven, in part, by genetic outliers.

And this:

If CRISPR-related technologies develop as anticipated, designer humans are at most a few decades away…Because complex traits are controlled by so many variants, we know that there is a huge pool of untapped potential that no human—not Shaq, Bolt, or anyone else—has come close to exhausting…The nature of athletes, and the sports they compete in, are going to change due to new genomic technology. Will ordinary people lose interest? History suggests that they won’t: We love to marvel at exceptional, unimaginable ability. Lebron and Kobe and Shaq and Bolt all stimulated interest in their sports. The most popular spectator sport of 2100 might be cage fights between 8-foot-tall titans capable of balletic spinning head kicks and intricate jiu-jitsu moves. Or, just a really, really fast 100m sprint. No doping required.

2. Magic Blood and Carbon-Fiber Legs at the Brave New Olympics (Scientific American)

So, as the rules stand: having an incredibly rare gene mutation that boosts red blood cells—okay; training at altitude to boost red blood cells—okay; shelling out thousands of dollars to sleep in a tent that simulates altitude—okay; injecting a drug, one approved for other medical uses that causes your body to act as if it’s at altitude—you’re a disgrace. How should we draw the line? Where does a fair advantage end and cheating begin?

…These judgments must be grounded in which of the voluntarily accepted obstacles we deem critical to the meaning of a given sport. We’re in for a lot of arbitrary decisions about fairness. Yes, altitude tents; no, low-friction, full-body swimsuits. The best we can do is start an earnest conversation about what it is we hope to get out of each sport. I hope that is what we are doing right here.

3. Caster Semenya And The Logic Of Olympic Competition (The New Yorker)

Great discussion, hard to excerpt, but for starters:

N.T.: Caster Semenya, the South African middle-distance star, who has what are called “intersex conditions.” She has always identified as a woman, but she has many of the physiological features of a man, including internal testes and an exceptionally high testosterone level. Do you think she should be allowed to compete as a woman?

M.G.: Of course not! And why do I say of course not? Because not a single track-and-field fan that I’m aware of disagrees with me. I cannot tell you how many arguments I’ve gotten into over the past two weeks about this, and I’ve been astonished at how many people fail to appreciate the athletic significance of this. Remember, this is a competitive issue, not a human-rights issue. No one is saying that Semenya isn’t a woman, a human being, and an individual deserving of our full respect.

And this:

N.T.: Right now, women’s middle-distance running is about as doped up as the Tour de France was in the nineteen-nineties.

M.G.: The women’s fifteen hundred in the 2012 Olympics was worse! As of right now, about half the field has been investigated for doping schemes since then. It’s a mess!

4. The Caster Semenya debate (The Science of Sport)

We have a separate category for women because without it, no women would even make the Olympic Games (with the exception of equestrian). Most of the women’s world records, even doped, lie outside the top 5000 times run by men. Radcliffe’s marathon WR, for instance, is beaten by between 250 and 300 men per year. Without a women’s category, elite sport would be exclusively male.

That premise hopefully agreed, we then see that the presence of the Y-chromosome is THE single greatest genetic “advantage” a person can have. That doesn’t mean that all men outperform all women, but it means that for elite sport discussion, that Y-chromosome, and specifically the SRY gene on it, which directs the formation of testes and the production of Testosterone, is a key criteria on which to separate people into categories.

So going back to the premise that women’s sport is the PROTECTED category, and that this protection must exist because of the insurmountable and powerful effects of testosterone, my opinion on this is that it is fair and correct to set an upper limit for that testosterone, which is what the sport had before CAS did away with it.

The advantage enjoyed by a Semenya is not the same as the one enjoyed by say, Usain Bolt, or LeBron James, or Michael Phelps, because we don’t compete in categories of fast-twitch fiber, or height, or foot size (pick your over simplification for performance here). So Semenya has a genetic advantage, by virtue of A) having a Y-chromosome and testes, and B) being unable to use that T and/or one of its derivatives enough to have developed fully male.


5. This Is Why There Are So Many Ties In Swimming (DeadSpin)

In a 50 meter Olympic pool, at the current men’s world record 50m pace, a thousandth-of-a-second constitutes 2.39 millimeters of travel. FINA pool dimension regulations allow a tolerance of 3 centimeters in each lane, more than ten times that amount. Could you time swimmers to a thousandth-of-a-second? Sure, but you couldn’t guarantee the winning swimmer didn’t have a thousandth-of-a-second-shorter course to swim.

Incidentally, American football has the opposite problem, the length of the field is (likely) quite accurate, but measurement — at least of where the ball is spotted after a play — is inaccurate:

Joey Faulkner — an Astronomy PhD student who we assume did not grow up watching American football because he’s British — collected a massive amount of NFL game data to prove that the official spotting of footballs is neither arbitrary nor accurate.

Surprisingly, this is by design:

If this is indeed the spot, then there should have been a measurement, but there wasn’t. So was the umpire’s spot a mistake? No. It was intentional. By moving back a half yard, the chain can now be placed exactly on the 21-yard line. Now the officials need only to see if the ball advances past the 11-yard line for the next first down. And with yard markers all over the field, this is easy for an official to see without needing the chain.

In other words, the Seahawks lost a half yard simply because the officials wanted to make it easier to know whether it will be a first down on the next set of downs.

6. This Kenyan Olympic Javelin Thrower Taught Himself with Youtube Videos, Now He’s a Champion (Atlanta BlackStar by way of Playground)

In the video by Playground Magazine, Julius Yego reveals that he taught himself how to throw a javelin by watching YouTube videos and through trial and error. The 28-year-old has earned five gold medals in his young career.


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