Ye Shiwen recently set a speed record at the London 2012 Olympic Games (AP)
… actually ends up being more of a statistics question than a health and fitness question. From the Popular Science article linked above:
… the mathematics of record-breaking—also known as “extreme-value statistics”—tell us that, all things being equal, the frequency of world records will tend to diminish. At a certain point, we’ll have rolled the dice so many times that the chance of our beating our best score drops close to zero.
Note the phrase “all things being equal.” If athletes 100 years from now are about as fit, as skilled, and as talented as athletes today, you’d expect the rate of world record breaking to slow down. But, as the article points out, all things are not equal, and the rates of record breaking seem to be holding steady, if they aren’t speeding up.
Research by Alan Nevill, a biostatistician at the University of Wolverhampton (go Wolves!) in England, shows that world records tend to accumulate slowly at first and then go through a period of rapid acceleration as new technologies are adopted and more people compete. Once this period of innovation ends, the record-breaking curve flattens out.
In other words, world record breaking for a given sport should be in punctuated equilibrium — long periods of slow, infrequent record breaking separated by short, intense periods of frequent record breaking. “Innovation,” by the way, could be extended to include performance-enhancing drugs.