Nirmal Shekar

Citius, Altius, Fortius: how long, and how much?

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Sport is one area of human activity that makes room for leaps of faith.

After watching the Australian Open men’s singles semifinal and final matches in which Novak Djokovic beat Roger Federer in four sets and Andy Murray in straight sets, a friend came up with a bold prediction. “If Djokovic improves a notch or two, it might be tough even for Federer to win a single game against him.”

Djokovic might be the first of modern super-athletes; and so he went on. “I think it would take a special kind of robot to beat Djokovic if he gets any better,” he said.

This man — like many others I know in the world of sport — clearly believed that absolute athletic perfection was possible; and it might even happen in the next half century at the latest.

Blame it on Charles Darwin, the man who came up with the theory of evolution through natural selection — the single greatest idea to occur to a human mind. Blame it on our cognitive biases — especially confirmation bias. Blame it on our sense of optimism, which provides a survival advantage. But the point is, we often tend to over-estimate our own capacities. The result is disappointment and heartbreak.

Sport is one area of human activity that makes room for leaps of faith. And sports fans and experts quite often come up with questions that touch off endless debates that are never really resolved to the satisfaction of everyone.

Is there a peak beyond which human beings cannot go in their athletic endeavours? Is there a limit to the progression of records? Will we soon reach a point where athletes become Uber-athletes. And Human.2, perhaps a new species, will make its appearance in sports?

The point is, evolution is not synonymous with progress, as counter-intuitive as it may seem in an age when futurologists in the world of science believe that it is only a matter of two or three decades before Singularity — the point at which machine (computer) intelligence matches and then excels human intelligence — arrives and humans are left behind by their own creation.

But scientists with their feet on the ground know that these things are purely in the realm of speculation, just as pragmatists in the world of sport know that a human being can never run 100 metres in five seconds flat.

Usain Bolt, the holder of the 100m world record at 9.58s — at his fastest he was running at 12.4 metres a second — has said that he can do even better. But scientists believe that 9.4 seconds is probably the fastest that humans can run 100 metres.

Can a batsman — active now or someone in the future — play over 50 Tests and average above 99.94 (Don Bradman’s average)? Can he score the perfect century, off a mere 17 balls faced? How much faster than Jeff Thomson can a bowler bowl consistently?

Can a super-Federer or Djokovic, maybe in the 2050s, be so good as to be able to blank out opponents in the ultimate sense, winning every point in the match? Can a new-and-improved version of a Lionel Messi run the length of the field, past 10 opponents, and score a goal?

Sky is the limit

As I said, there are those who think that the sky is the limit for sportsmen and an equal number who think that at some point records will hit a plateau. And both camps come up with arguments that, on the face of it, seem logical.

The Olympic motto Citius, Altius, Fortius (faster, higher, stronger) is quite reassuring, but we cannot fool ourselves into believing that we might soon evolve from homo sapiens to some kind of super-species whose members would make today’s sports records look as if they were set in the Pleistocene era.

Of course, with the help of state-of-the-art technology and support from biomechanics experts, sports psychologists and nutritionists — not to speak of a dozen other ‘experts’ in the performance enhancing business — we can foresee a future where peaks will be higher in many sports?

And it is quite possible that in the future geneticists will be able to manipulate genes to such an extent that designer babies — ones that might have a 90 per cent chance of becoming a super-athlete — may be born, should sport turn a blind eye to what is already happening in many advanced laboratories.

“There is an arms race quality to performance enhancing technologies in sport,” Thomas Murray, former president of the Hastings Centre, a bioethics and public policy foundation in Garrison, New York, has been quoted as saying by Helen Thomson in an article in the magazine Nature.

Standards are higher in almost every popular sport compared to 25 or 50 years ago. Even at his best, Jesse Owens, who won the 100m sprint in the Berlin Olympics, would have been an unbelievable 14 strides short of Bolt had he run when the Jamaican set the world record.

“The logic of quantitative progress tends to narrow the possibilities for human progress to one or a few special qualities that are vulnerable to manipulation by outside expertise — medical, technological, scientific.” This is from the book Values in Sport: Elitism, Naturalism, Nationalism, Equality and the Scientific Manufacture of Winners, edited by Torbjorn Tansjo and Claudio Tamburrini.

Scary, isn’t it. But wait a minute. “A lot of it is mere speculation. There is no way record times can be halved or anything like that even with performance enhancing drugs and gene doping,” says a top sports medicine expert who doesn’t want to be named.

Yet, caution should be the watchword. Our expertise at predictions is much less than perfect.

Writes David Epstein in his popular book The Sports Gene: “Science if far better at looking at an athlete and retrospectively suggesting why that individual is succeeding. [But] sports scientists have a tortuous path ahead to uncover many of the physical qualities that lead to elite athletic performances, much less the genes that under-grid them.”

The truth is, there is no single sports gene just as there is no single foolproof method by which quantitative improvements over time can be calculated for predictions.

But even if there was a single gene and a seemingly perfect prediction, it is unlikely that anyone can come up with a kind of Federer Formula to help the qualitative (read aesthetic) standards match the quantitative ones.

And thank Nature for that.

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Printable version | Dec 12, 2019 2:11:58 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/nirmal_shekar/nirmal-shekar-column-citius-altius-fortius-how-long-and-how-much/article8189273.ece

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