You can do it! Maybe

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

In 1993, in an article in the New York Times, naturalist Natalie Angier wrote, Even the most elite human athlete is thoroughly pathetic compared with nature’s other aerobic masters. She goes on to give examples: the cheetah’s seventy miles per hour sprint; the hummingbird’s twenty-four hour migration vigil powered by wing beats of thousands per minute; the pronghorn antelope’s ability to maintain runs of sixty miles per hour over long periods of time.

We enjoy these comparisons. It’s also fun to compare the records of elite Olympic athletes to animals’ skills.

  • The Sprint: The Jamaican runner, Usain Bolt, 27.4 miles per hour vs. sprinting animals, the cat at 29.8 to the Cheetah at 61 miles per hour.
  • The Lift: Soviet/Belarusian weight lifter, Leonid Taranenko, 586.4 pounds vs. the elephant, 661 pounds.
  • Swimming: Brazilian swimmer, Cesar Cielo, 5.34 miles per hour vs. water animals, 22-80 miles per hour.
  • The Long Jump: American jumper, Mile Powell, 29.4 feet vs., snow leopard, 49 feet

These are impressive numbers for both the humans and the animals. What is missing in these comparisons, however, is the recognition that, while an animal can excel in one ‘event,’ human athletes can excel in all, aerobic as well as those where length or height or strength is the basis of achievement.

Now the Olympics are upon us.  Unlike animals, who  compete for food, water, shelter, and safety, Olympic athletes compete for status and for being the best in their event. And in that regard, the athletes of today are facing some challenges that did not exist twenty or thirty years ago.

Recent analysis of all of the Olympic records set between 1896 and 2016 has lead researchers to believe that Olympic athletes can expect fewer opportunities to set new records in the future. These data show that the pace at which sports records are being set has slowed, and might have even plateaued during the 1980s. In addition, records that are being set are happening in smaller increments.

As an example: in the 2014 Olympics, Joseph Schooling bested record holder Michael Phelps in the butterfly event by a mere two tenths of a second.

Can an athlete feel pride and accomplishment by overtaking a world record by  two tenths of a second? Or muster up the courage and dedication to train for such a small margin of gain?  Can the loser avoid cynicism and disillusionment?

Then there are big questions which have arisen from all the number crunching:  Is there a finite level of physiological capacity, both for humans and animals? Are Olympic athletes at the end point of skill building?

In his research, biologist Mark Denny asked those questions regarding speed in race horses, greyhounds, and humans, all having been trained to run. Horses and dogs had been racing competitively for centuries. Humans, for millennia.

In dogs and horses Denny identified limits to the speed they were able to cover over a given distance. Also, even when an intensive program to enhance performance was initiated, race speeds in horses and dogs have not increased in the last forty to sixty years.  These animals appear to have reached their limit.

In humans, the analysis of the hundred-year historical data suggests that a limit exists, and that the speed is only a few percent greater than observed to date. But Denny claims that humans have not reached a plateau in running speeds.

Which brings me to my conclusion. Humans and animals, and animals and animals, must not be compared for evidence of superiority of one or the other species. All are a part of one family and, like all families, there are differences among its members.  Yet, each brings something valuable to the mix. Each adds to the whole.

Please enjoy this video that looks at the connection between humans and animals.


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