In the Mexico City Olympics of 1968, Bob Beamon stunned the athletic world when he shattered the record for the men's long jump. Leaping over 29 feet, he beat the former record by almost 2 feet -- so far that the officials' measuring rail didn't even extend that distance.
What unlocks these record-setting performances? For many coaches and athletes, the answer seems to be science, in the form of nutrition, physiology and materials technology.
But is the reliance on new scientific innovations stealing the soul of athletic competition?
What athletes eat and drink -- the super-foods precisely engineered to address their nutrient needs -- is one of the ways that science lends a helping hand.
"We have foods now that are specifically designed for athletes," says Ron Pfeiffer, professor of kinesiology at Boise State University in Idaho and co-director of its Center for Orthopedic and Biomechanics Research.
"Elite athletes aren't the kinds of people you'll see walking down the street next to you," Pfeiffer adds. "They have different nutritional needs. Their diets are carefully monitored for things like muscle glycogen and liver glycogen levels."
Some companies have excelled at devising sports drinks and other products that address athletes' fluid-replacement and carbohydrate needs. But are these super-foods creating super-athletes?
Pfeiffer, like most others in sports science, doesn't think so. "There's no real magic to it," he says, though he doesn't think anyone is likely to return to the diets of a generation ago.
"I didn't know a protein from a hockey puck when I went to the Olympic trials for speed skating in 1968 and 1972," Pfeiffer says.
Rehab or Prehab?
The most gifted athlete in the world can't perform up to Olympic standards with an injury. But science has stepped up to the plate here, too.
"Training against injuries is now a major focus," says Pfeiffer. "It improves performance when you focus on programs to reduce injuries. We're applying medical principles to the training of athletes."
Some innovative new training and rehabilitation concepts have joined the arsenal of weapons available to sports trainers and coaches. "Infrared light therapy is being used for both acute and chronic injuries," says Robert Toth, assistant clinical professor and staff athletic trainer in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science Department at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
"IR therapy increases the uptake of nutrients by individual cells without increasing blood flow, so we're seeing tissue heal more quickly," he says. "We're really excited about this therapy."
Vibration therapy, originally developed in Soviet bloc countries, was used before an event to help muscles react more quickly. "Now it's used more for rehabilitation than for performance," says Toth. "Vibration therapy is enabling us to do more rehabilitation work sooner."
An alternative to rehabilitation is "pre-habilitation," a favorite strategy of strength coaches, in which an athlete's range of functional movement is carefully analyzed and screened for any potential problems.
"We find where they're deficient, then work with coaches and athletes to get the athlete more stable, head off a lot of problems, and push the envelope of performance," Toth says.
All these scientific advancements require, of course, coaches and trainers who are more than just retired jocks.
Professional athletic trainers today have a deeper knowledge of nutrition, physiology, kinesiology and medicine than their predecessors.
"Lance [Armstrong] is a perfect example," says Pfeiffer. "Clearly, Lance has been trained and groomed for his event. That sort of training isn't coincidental." Pfeiffer cites the strategy of "periodization," used by many coaches to optimize performance for a specific event like the Olympics.
"Periodization means applying scientific principles to develop a training program, then breaking that program into components to achieve maximum performance while minimizing injuries," he explains.
"Each phase of the program is measured and analyzed, then timed to peak for a particular event. That's the way it's done with these Olympic athletes."
Larger Pool of Athletes
One phenomenon improving athletic performances exists outside the realm of science — the world has been introduced to a larger international pool of competitors.
Jesus Depena, professor of biomechanics in the Department of Kinesiology at Indiana University in Bloomington, believes a greater appreciation of athletics as a career option has given the world a larger pool of competitive athletes.
"There were always people around who were as good as the best athletes today, but today these people are found and they go to college to train as athletes," Depena says. "You are selecting from a bigger number of people."
This is especially for women athletes. Title IX, a federal prohibiting sex discrimination in education, was enacted in 1972 and has extended to women unprecedented opportunities in school athletics.
"Until the mid-1970s, women were not encouraged to enter athletics," says Pfeiffer. "Suddenly we have women with the upper body strength to pole vault 16 or 17 feet. There's been explosive improvement."
Not everyone agrees, however, that science and technology hold the key to superior athletic performances.
"Supplements are probably all garbage," says Depena, who admits to being something of a gadfly in his field. He also discredits some of the technological advancements that have given rise to new fabrics for uniforms and new composite materials used in athletic equipment.
"Shoes are not much better than they were 20 or 30 years ago, and synthetic tracks are about as good as dirt tracks," Depena says.
Whip Inflation Now
While questioning the usefulness of some new developments, Depena also bemoans the inflationary effect other innovations have on athletic records, causing current technologically enhanced performances to outshine past achievements.
"It really depends on the sport," he says. "New gymnastics floors are very springy. Bicycles and bike helmets are all aerodynamic now.
"Overall, I don't think it's a good thing — it's inflationary," he adds. "You can't compare what you see today with what you saw years ago. But I'm in the minority — most people see these as improvements."
The most controversial examples of inflated performances may have occurred during the 1980s, when a large number of Olympic records were set.
Depena points to competitions like the women's 400-meter relay record (set in 1980) and the men's shot put record (set in 1988). Performances have actually been declining since those Olympic records were set.
"In some cases, the drop-off has been so big it's gonna be hard to get back to it," Depena says. "Right now there's a fair amount of stagnation."
But why, with scientific advances in athletics, have today's elite athletes been unable to better these performances from years past?
"Steroids or performance-enhancing drugs — that would be my guess," says Depena.
Back to Basics
But in spite of scientifically developed diet regimens and space-age materials, athletic performance still depends more than anything on the individual athletes themselves.
"What is more important, the athlete's body or new techniques?" asks Depena. "In most cases, I'd take the body over the technique any day."
"I'd be careful not to give too much credit to any one thing," adds Pfeiffer. "Clearly, we've seen much improvement in sports science, but I've seen athletes rewrite the book in one day."
Beamon himself, whose 1968 record has yet to be beaten in the Olympics, believes better-designed equipment and a scientific diet make a difference but won't make a great athlete.
"The greatness doesn't come with a super shoe," he says. "The greatness comes from within the athlete."