If it seems that Shirley Babashoff had a galling Olympics, consider the plight of Don Schollander, who in 1964 won four gold medals in swimming and set a world record of 4:12.2 in the 400-meter freestyle. Two months ago in Montreal he had to watch East Germany's 15-year-old Petra Th�mer not only outswim Babashoff but also surpass his old record with her 4:09.89. "I wouldn't even have placed second," said Schollander, now a business executive in Portland, Ore. Then he grinned, clearly unperturbed. "It's part of a swimmer's frame of reference that records keep going down."
It is, and they do, to the extent that you can be assured that within a year or two Th�mer or her successor will better the world record of 4:07.7 set by Mark Spitz in 1968. The women's record is only 2.19 seconds shy of it and has been lowered 9.15 seconds in the last four years. In that period the men have taken 8.18 seconds off Spitz' mark; Brian Goodell set the current record of 3:51.93 in Montreal. At their present rate of improvement, the women will beat that time by 1984. Indeed, there is at least the statistical prospect that women 400-meter swimmers, who in 1962 were 10.85% slower than their male contemporaries but are now only 7.74% slower, will one day—say the early 1990s—swim the 400 as fast as men.
Schollander may be amused, but a more widespread response, among both sexes, is to wonder what in the world is going on? One man who can tell us precisely, and has for some years—albeit in narrowly circulated medical journals—is Dr. Ernst Jokl, a robust, 69-year-old professor at the University of Kentucky and director of its research laboratories. A respected neurologist who in his teens won the German championship in the 400-meter hurdles, Jokl is the father of what he calls record physiology. Occasionally scornful of laboratory research in exercise physiology because it is lacking in predictive relevance, he considers the real world the best lab and world records his raw data.
"We have to understand that all records are progressing toward finite limits," said Jokl last week from behind a great stack of charts and graphs in his study. "To vaguely suggest otherwise is insupportable. Can man ever run at the speed of light? No. Between the present records and that impossible speed are levels beyond which no human can ever go. Some records—many of those in track and field—are nearing those limits right now. How do we know? Look at the curves. As the record improvements get smaller and the time between them longer—what we would expect as we near the limit—the curve begins to flatten out, to become asymptotic, as we say.
"The ultimate limits of the sprint records in track we glimpsed in 1968, when the altitude of Mexico City facilitated performance. All those records [100. 200, 400, and 400 and 1,600 relays] stand essentially unimproved today. They'll be beaten, but not by very much. Yet look at the javelin," pointing to a jerky line crawling diagonally up a page. "It is still going up without any suggestion of flattening, so we can predict even longer throws, especially since they're always monkeying around with the design of the javelin."
Jokl produced two curves that not only were not flattening, but also seemed to be ascending at an ever steeper rate. "Swimming!" exclaimed Jokl. "Imagine these 1,500-meter swimmers taking 50 seconds off the record in four years [ Goodell has this record too, 15:02.40]. From this kind of curve there is no way to predict any limits. All you can say is that swimming's evolutionary state is well behind running's."
Another of Jokl's charts compares the rates at which swimmers and runners slow down as their distances lengthen. Goodell averaged one minute per 100 meters in his record 1,500, or a decrease in velocity of 20% from Jim Montgomery's record 49.99 for 100 meters. Yet the best a runner has been able to do for an equivalent time—Emiel Puttemans' world-record 5,000 meters of 13:13.0—is 44% slower than world-record 400-meter sprinting speed. If Olympic sprint champion Hasely Crawford of Trinidad only slowed by 20% over a mile, he would run it in 3:13.5.
Here Jokl finds an explanation in the work of Physiologist Otto Gauer who, in studying weightlessness for NASA, discovered that there is a marked increase in the size of the heart when a person is immersed in water. "Gauer found-that in swimmers the heart works virtually unencumbered by gravity," says Jokl. "Consequently, the cardiovascular system greatly increases its capacity for carrying oxygen to the muscles."
Thus, swimmers' pulse rates stay lower than runners', and the limiting factor in their performances may be how well individual muscle cells adapt to training, and not—as was formerly believed—how effectively the circulatory system gets oxygen to them. This may explain, too, why swimmers can train five or six hours a day, while runners break down if they train more than two hours.
One event in which the limit has been reached—the only one, in Jokl's estimation—is the men's long jump. " Bob Beamon's 29'2�" was the greatest single feat in the recorded history of athletics," Jokl says flatly, calling it the first and only "mutation performance" in sport because it was not preceded by an orderly development of the long-jump record. In the 33 years before 1968 the record had been improved by 8�", from Jesse Owens' 26'8�" in 1935 to the 27'5" by Ralph Boston in 1965. Beamon tacked on 1'9�" at one pop, about an 84-year advance at the previous rate. Because the self-generated forces necessary to propel a human body as far as Beamon jumped verge on those which tear muscles and break bones, and because the long-jump curve was flattening anyway, Jokl is convinced that the chance of anyone ever exceeding Beamon is practically nil.