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Higher, Faster - How Much Longer?

Experts debate whether athletes are quickly approaching a performance plateau

A COUPLE of world-record holders here at the Barcelona Olympics are stuck in perpetual second place to members of the animal kingdom.

An exhibition at Barcelona's science museum meant to show the "real scale" of records uses realistic wax figures to depict a leopard outleaping long-jump king Mike Powell - 50 ft., 2 in., vs. 29 ft., 4 1/2 in. A kangaroo exceeds Javier Soto-mayor's high jump effort - 10 ft., 10 in., vs. 8 ft. Only pole vaulter Sergei Bubka comes out on top, his fiberglass-assisted indoor mark of 20 ft., 1 1/4 in. taking him slightly higher than an airborne dolphin.

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"Citius, Altius, Fortius" - faster, higher, stronger - is the Olympic motto, and for most people these quadrennial gatherings of the world's finest athletes serve as their window on the state of current sports performance.

Numerous Olympic records may fall, as is generally the case given the four years between Games. Far fewer world marks will be erased, however, due to the traditional Olympic emphasis on winning medals, not setting records.

Besides, some observers wonder how much room for expansion is left in the athletic "envelope."

Ernst Jokl, a retired professor of sports medicine at the University of Kentucky and a student of athletic performance, predicts that there will be "very few, if any, world records" set in Barcelona. Dr. Jokl asserts that near-optimal physical conditions have been achieved in areas such as equipment and technique, leaving little room for improvement "except in a sport like gymnastics, where [skills] are more artistic and complicated" than in track and field. Will women overtake men?

Jokl bases his opinion on his own research into plotting record progressions. He says a common, asymptotic pattern emerges, in which a steep curve flattens out. "Women started very late to compete, but the principle will be the same" as for the men, he says.

This view, shared by others, explains why the predictions of two physiologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, met with such skepticism earlier this year. Brian J. Whipp and Susan A. Ward predicted in the British science journal Nature that women might outrun men at the longer distances by the middle of the next century.

The finding, some countered, was based on an unrealistic straight-line progression. Dramatic improvements were inevitable, they say, with the rapid expansion of sports opportunities for women and the radical assessment of their capabilities. But already, women's efforts to close the gap with men marathoners have begun to stall (about 14 minutes separates them now).

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Distance events were only reinstated to the women's Olympic program in 1964, after the exhaustion and collapse of several 800-meter runners raised alarm in 1928. Not until 1984 did women run anything longer than 1,500 meters in Olympic competition.

The most famous athletic barrier ever broken remains the 4-minute mile, a threshold first crossed by Englishman Roger Bannister in 1954.

His men's mark has since been lowered by a modest 13.5 seconds to 3:46.32, or an average of about .34 seconds a year. "In something like the mile," says Jay Kearney, director of sports science for the United States Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs, Colo., "there's little opportunity for equipment intervention," and consequently lower "expectations for statistical gains."

Nonetheless, Dr. Kearney foresees continued improvement - perhaps a 3:45 clocking by the turn of the century - and says it is a "very foolish notion" to think that ultimate performances have been reached.

Brutus Hamilton, a respected coach at the University of California, once ran aground on that notion. In 1935, he calculated what he thought would be the end-all records in various events: a 4:01.66 mile, a 15 ft. 1 in. pole vault, and a 6 ft., 11 3/4 in. high jump. These and other forecasts, of course, have been obliterated. Technology boosts vaulters

The advent of fiberglass poles has been a boon to vaulters like Bubka, who is seeking his second Olympic title in Barcelona. Foam landing pits, meanwhile, have aided both pole vaulters and high jumpers, who now can throw themselves over the bar with no thought about their landing, a constant concern with the old sand and sawdust pits.

Lionel C.F. Blackman, in his book "Athletic World Records in the 20th Century," writes that these raised, foam-rubber landing areas "also provide a psychological advantage in making the bar seem not quite so high."

Interestingly, Dick Fosbury, who popularized the back-first "Fosbury Flop" style that revolutionized high jumping, sees the end in sight. In a 3M ad focused on Olympic innovators (he set an Olympic record in 1968 of 7 ft., 4 1/4 in.) he is quoted as saying, "I think 8 ft., 4 in. is as high as a man can jump. It's man against gravity and gravity always wins."

Maybe the most gravity-defying recent feat was Mike Powell's long jump of 29 ft., 4 1/2 in. at last year's world championship, where Bob Beamon's record of 23 years (29 ft., 2 1/2 in.) was finally broken. Many had thought that Beamon's mark, set in the thin altitude of Mexico City at the '68 Olympics, was virtually untouchable.

Carl Lewis has proved this fallacious with his assault on the record in recent years, and now Powell (who will go head-to-head with Lewis here) is saying the 30-foot barrier is in jeopardy.

"It's no longer going to take a phenomenal jump," he says. "It's going to take a good jump. A phenomenal jump would be 31 feet."

Any number of factors are said to contribute to record setting: better coaching, increased competition, greater financial rewards, and the sophisticated application of a host of sports-related sciences and technologies.

Some cynically would add that drug use has also played a part in certain instances, but as tighter testing reduces or eliminates the problem, sports author Blackman predicts that "doping should prove to have been only transitory in the overall path of continued progress." The United States women's swim team may prove that here, by erasing the last of several suspiciously achieved East German-held world records.

Dennis Pursley, director of the US swim team, says "the potential is there to swim considerably faster than we have. I haven't seen the perfect performance yet."

Ultimately, most agree, the linchpin in the quest to set records is mental. As high jumper Dwight Stones once put it, "The body doesn't know it has limits."

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