I ENJOY playing sports, but I'm not much of a spectator. In fact, about my only concession to watching sports on TV is the Olympics, which I've followed religiously since the Tokyo games of 1964. Of course, I'll be watching the games again this year.
What fascinates me most about them is the very high level of competition, the fact that a good number of world records in events that measure success in absolute numbers -- track and field, swimming, weightlifting, etc. -- get broken. It makes me wonder about human athletic potential, about limits, about whether, in fact, athletic potential is limited at all.
Some of today's world records are so astonishing that it's difficult to believe they could be broken: Carl Lewis' 9.86-second 100-meter --; Mike Powell's 29 foot, 4.5-inch broad jump; Ken Lain's 725-pound bench press; Naim Suleymangolu's 414-pound clean and jerk.
Yet Powell's jump, remember, surpassed by two inches Bob Beamon's immortal leap at the 1968 Olympics, an effort many said would not be bettered until the 21st century. Lain's bench press record is light years past the 600-pound barrier that some once maintained could not be breached. And Naim Suleymangolu's lift was once considered impressive for men who weighed close to 300 pounds; he weighs 132.
On the other hand, if records continue to be broken at the present rate, by the late 22nd century we will have broad jumpers leaping over 37 feet, high jumpers jumping over nine feet, pole vaulters soaring over 30 feet, 100-meter sprinters doing that distance under nine seconds, milers going the distance in 3 1/2 minutes (remember the four-minute mile?), marathoners doing their thing in less than two hours and weight-lifters in the super-heavyweight class bench pressing and cleaning and jerking over 1,000 pounds!
I once asked Terry Todd, former world champion power-lifter and now a professor at the University of Texas in Austin, about limits; specifically, whether we'll see an 825-pound bench press in the year 2009, a 1,025 bench press in 2029. He didn't think so. "You can clearly demonstrate through logic," he said, "that that sort of progression is not to be expected infinitely, because clearly, in a couple hundreds years, you'd be at poundages that any person with good judgment knows could not be reached."
Todd's view, if time proves it right, would render obsolete the Olympic slogan, "stronger, higher, faster" and the old sports adage, "Records are made to be broken." Sports scored with numbers would lose fan and media support because much of their appeal comes from anticipating the crossing of new thresholds and breaking new barriers, from watching athletes go places where none has gone before.
Clearly, performance-enhancing drugs have pushed records higher and faster. But if strict testing has slowed the progression of records -- and it has, especially lifting records -- it has not stopped it. Both Lewis and Powell passed their tests after setting world marks at last year's world track and field championships. And at last fall's drug-tested world weightlifting championships, two worlds records fell.
So the records continue to be broken. What it comes down to is the human body's ultimate potential to perform, a potential contingent on the coordinated effort of bones and muscles, tendons and nerves -- vulnerable tissues that break when pushed beyond their capacity, tissues that one day might prevent world-class athletes from jumping another inch, running or swimming in a hundredth of a second less time, lifting another kilo. I hope that day never comes, at least not while there's still an Olympics to watch.
Mark Miller, an ex-lifting champ, has long since reached his potential. He writes from Baltimore.