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Is There Such a Thing As Perfection in Athletic Performance?

09/16/2010 05:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John Brenkus is author of The Perfection Point.

Few things get a sports fan as excited as witnessing the breaking of a world record.

For a few days, a few weeks or sometimes even a few years, an individual is acknowledged as the very best there is, and ever was.

But, sooner or later, somebody else comes along and is faster, stronger or more agile, and the crown passes once again. It happens every time, inevitably. Some records are short-lived -- at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, swimming world records were broken hours after they were set -- and some aren't broken until we start to think they never will be. After Bob Beamon long-jumped a then-staggering 29 feet, 2-1/2 inches at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, it would be twenty-three years before the feat was bettered.

As records tumble, we're led to wonder: Will it ever end? Is there some performance that, once achieved, can never be surpassed?

The production company I own with my partner Mickey Stern, BASE Productions, produces the multi-Emmy Award-winning series Sport Science on ESPN. As host/creator/executive producer of that show, I've been incredibly fortunate to be intimately involved in more than 200 cutting-edge experiments with the world's greatest athletes (Drew Brees, Ray Lewis, etc.) that have spurred endless water cooler debates. Who's the strongest? Who's the fastest? Who's "The Best" athlete in the world? But the answers to those questions only tell us where humans stand TODAY. The one question that everyone wants to know is, "What's the limit of human performance?" In other words, what is our species' "Perfection Point?"

Most people would say there's no such thing as perfection because it's hard to fathom. If someone manages to run the 100 meters in 9.40 seconds (the current world record is 9.58), are we really prepared to say "That's it, we're done, no one will ever beat it?"

Of course not. We can't imagine that, if someone was able to run in 9.40, no one else will ever achieve 9.39.

On the other hand, we can be pretty definitive about things no one will ever do. No one will ever bench press a Volkswagen, no one will high jump over a two-story house, and no one will ever run the 100 meters in eight seconds. Those feats are ridiculous, and it doesn't take a lot of insight to pronounce those kinds of performances off-limits for humans.

But there's a different, more interesting question that is worth debating: For any given athletic endeavor, is there a point we can inch ever closer and closer to but never surpass, a point more realistic and less arbitrary than bench pressing a Volkswagen?

In other words, do perfection points exist that define the absolute limits of human physical achievement?

I believe they do, and in The Perfection Point I set out to discover exactly what those limits are for nine athletic events.

It wasn't easy, and it took the combined efforts of sports physiologists, physicists, experts in biomechanics and, in one surprising case, a sports psychologist. Our method involved starting with the current world record holder in each discipline, breaking the activity down into its basic components, then using hard science to determine how much improvement was possible in each of those components.

Sounds simple on paper, but we quickly discovered that it wasn't just a matter of adding all those pieces up to calculate the perfection point, because many of those components had a nasty tendency to interact with one another in complex ways. For example, when we tried to determine the highest possible basketball dunk, we realized that the ability to leap decreases as the athlete gets too tall. There's an optimum balance among height, jumping ability and arm length that gets you the highest dunk. (How high? A perfectly-constructed athlete could dunk through the shot clock above the rim.)

The 100-meter dash presented similar obstacles: Massive thigh muscles required for optimum acceleration would not only weigh the athlete down mid-race, but would also make it more difficult for him to get out of the starting blocks quickly. But balance everything out perfectly and it should be possible for a human being to cover the distance in 8.99 seconds. But not 8.98. That's a flat-out impossibility.

We also believe that the maximum time that a human could hold his breath while face-down in water is fourteen minutes, forty-seven seconds. Sounds absurd, I know, but it might surprise you to know that the current world record is eleven minutes, thirty-five seconds. And that's not after breathing pure oxygen, a trick used by magician David Blaine to remain underwater for an extended period on national television.

How much faith do I have that the perfection points we came up with are the correct ones? Quite a lot, actually, but what I really wanted to do was open the dialogue. That's why I refer to The Perfection Point as the ultimate water cooler book (and why I went to such lengths to write it using an entertaining, highly readable style aimed at everyday readers). A few years ago a noted magazine created a list of the hundred greatest athletes of the twentieth century. They dribbled the list out in pieces over several months, and the conversations that sprang up were not only intriguing but terrific fun. It got people thinking hard about things they hadn't considered before. Those heated arguments were the best part, even better than the list itself, because the choices were clearly very subjective (in addition to Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan, the list included a thoroughbred horse and a race car driver).

My intention was for this book to spark a similar dialogue. I don't have the slightest doubt that perfection points exist, although I welcome that debate as well, and I'm looking forward to other people taking the concept and refining the analysis. It's a certainty that we're going to learn an awful lot in the process.

The best part, though, will be the conversations that take place among fans every time a new record is set. In addition to the traditional questions about whether the new world record holder is the best there ever was, there will be a new question: How far is he from the best that ever can be?

For the first time, we have the answers.

John Brenkus has spent the last decade studying and popularizing the unique characteristics of the world's greatest athletes. A co-founder of BASE Productions, he co-created the groundbreaking series Fight Science for the National Geographic Channel and serves as the on-air host, co-creator and executive producer of ESPN's Emmy Award-winning show Sport Science. He lives in Los Angeles, California.