Can you get 8 guys, non-West African descent, to run 9.08s? No way

17 Jan 2019 Posted by

I missed my short thought yesterday – just a crazy busy day of meetings and last minute prep before a work trip to the UK and Paris starting today, so apologies for that.

Because I’m killing some time on the plane, my short thought is coming to you from 10353m above sea level, about 480km off the west coast of Angola.  

It’s late, and I’m tired, so apologies if this is less coherent than usual! It’s also a bonus double length thought, since I missed yesterday!

So here’s the question, it came to me via David Epstein (who has a book on the way – can’t wait):

8 men, non West-African descent, and an unlimited pool of money, people, expertise and facilities, and no ethical concerns, could you get EIGHT athletes to run 9.08s?

Answer: No way.

But, there’s some fine print, obviously.  The same guy was compelled to clarify a few things later in the thread, saying this:

So, no performance enhancing drugs (which kind of negates the previous “ethics were not a concern” statement, because the first thing most people who follow sport think of when you say “no ethics” is doping.  He also says no cybernetics, so no robots or similar technological aids, and I suppose that rules out the more rudimentary means like tilting a track down by 5% and doing it during a gale force wind.

Answer:  Still no.


Even some thought experiments ask too much of hypotheticals

I don’t know what point the guy is ultimately trying to make here, though I would imagine he wants to argue that it’s opportunity, training and exposure to opportunity that determines sprint success, and not genetics.   
First off, it’s a difficult question because it’s so hypothetical and I think it’s difficult for anyone who is even slightly pragmatic or involved in sport to get their head around, for the following reason:

If taken literally, the conditions he sets carry the following implications:

  • You get to put say 3 billion people through a high performance pathway for sprinters.  That is, every single male who is currently alive under the age of about 15 (because you could reasonably expect a person with some disposition to express sprinting talent almost immediately, and then develop it to peak within 6 to 10 years of starting.  Or you believe in 10,000 hour nonsense.  Either way, 15 is your start point), as well as every boy who is born in the next 5 or so years, because the project has a 30 year timeline.
  • Those 3 billion people now need exposure to training and competition, which requires coaches and facilities.  At one coach and facility to every 20 athletes (because less than this is unlikely to produce a champion), you need 150 million people to be coaches, and 75 million training facilities assuming two share a facility.  
  • You also need, on a conservative assumption that one in three athletes needs to see a doctor every year (for injuries and other treatment), and that the same doctor can see 50 people, 12 million doctors available to these athletes.  Injuries happen, after all, and they’ll constrain the performance of your candidates.

And yes, I know his question is hypothetical, so you can say that these resources are “limitless” and that it’s “only a thought experiment”, but I reckon when you set up such an unrealistic scenario and set of requirements, it’s difficult for people to overcome them and evaluate what you’re getting at.  Anyway, I digress.


Evaluating the thought experiment

What of the thought experiment?

First off, the target is 9.08s.  Within 30 years.  That is just too big.  If he says 0.1s, setting a target of 9.48s, sure, I’d say it’s feasible, assuming you do away with any realistic constraints in terms of accessing the world’s population and you could use literally millions of people and track them over two decades.  I reckon there’s a reasonable chance that one of them is at least as good as say, Christophe Lemaitre, who is currently the fastest person “of non recent West African descent” at 9.92s, the 280th fastest performance ever, making him the 47th fastest man ever (though genealogies of other athletes may be debated).

And if you can find a Lemaitre (which you know to be possible – he’s already been found), then by throwing unlimited resources at the world, you can conceivably find a guy who is 0.1s faster than that, and maybe one who is 0.2s faster, and now you’re down near the 9.60s, and that 9.48s time is getting closer. It’s still a leap to 9.50s, but it’s not a huge leap to make.

But 9.08s? That’s a leap over an ocean.  So I guess the question is, how big a leap is even possible?  If you add 0.5s to Bolt’s World Record, you arrive back in 1960. So, it took 50 years to drop the time, and we are arguably now on the flatter part of the world record improvement curve (an important point, one we’ll come back to shortly).  

I don’t think it’s reasonable for anyone, let alone a world’s population that excludes the group who are obviously predisposed to sprinting given the ease with which they can be found in certain regions of the world, to improve by the same margin in 30 years.  So he basically blows his thought experiment out of the water by asking for too big an improvement (irrespective of limitless resources).


A limit to human performance? And when are humans “maxed out”?

A few years back, a comparative biologist called Mark Denny did what I think is a really interesting paper, in which he looked at horses and greyhounds to estimate where the human performance limit might exist.  

The model being used here is that horses and greyhounds have been bred for generations specifically to propagate “performance genes”, and so what you arrived at at some point in the last century, was a genetic limit on running performance in those animals.  In other words, the “survival of the fittest (in this case, the fastest) was accelerated through selected breeding, with the “genes for performance” prioritized from one generation to the next.  The genes weren’t named or known, but the performance of the horses was, and so it was a case of inherited performance.

So, with that in mind, Denny’s logic is that human beings are also moving towards a genetic “improvement”, not in the same way as horses and greyhounds that were bred for performance, but rather because more and more of the world’s population were being exposed to the opportunity to perform, and so as the ‘genetically capable’ were given access to resources (facilities, expertise, money, and then advances in training like nutrition, equipment (and doping)) and opportunity, would improve on a similar trajectory over time.

So, he modeled the historical evolution of horse and greyhound performances, and then applied that model to humans.  I appreciate that there are some assumptions being made in comparing the two, and you could perhaps argue that horses and greyhounds need not obey the same models as humans, who deliberately look for ways to improve performance.

Nevertheless, the principles that his model uses are of more interest than the actual model. And what he found was that horses and greyhounds reached a performance limit or plateau at some point between 1949 and 1973. They simply stopped getting faster after that, as shown in the graph below (for horses)

In other words, the pursuit of better horses and dogs through selective breeding was ‘maxed out’ decades ago, and whatever has been added since (because horses and dogs also benefit from the advancement of knowledge) has not been able to move the performances faster.

The same model applied to humans predicts that the human plateau in performance will eventually be reached at 9.48s.  That is, if humans eventually ‘max out’ in terms of genetics, and other interventions to make them faster, the same way that horses and greyhounds have, the ultimate limit to 100m running will be 0.1s faster than the current WR.

Predictions using models are notoriously dicey – you can use a model to predict that women will be faster than men over 100m by 2156, for example.  And there was once one predicting women would outrun men in the marathon by 2004.  These models are so daft I often wonder if some scientist is just taking the piss, or maybe playing games among his mates, because I can’t believe anyone would offer up such a basically flawed argument, but anyway.

Back to Denny, I thought that this one was intriguing, not necessarily for the specific time of 9.48 that it predicts (it also predicts performance limits for other events, by the way), but because the model inputs are compelling and important for how we understand performance advances.


What drives performance advances?

In my opinion, performance advances come as a result of three things:1.

  1. Innovation – think Dick Fosbury in the high jump, klap-skates in speed skating, tennis racket or golf club technology, the LZR Racer swimsuit, and now Nike’s shoes that are now potentially aiding marathon runners.  Not all ended up legal, and not all should be legal, but regularly they drive performance from one level to the next, almost overnight.  Less obvious examples include track surfaces and supporting equipment – Jesse Owens’ 100m time from Berlin is reckoned to be more or less the equivalent of a 9.90s time now, given that he ran on cinder without blocks and advanced track spikes.  So, for the future of the world records, if you change the sport with technological innovation, then you can ‘break the models’.
  2. Doping.  Enough said.  Entire populations, teams and individual athletes make quantum leaps because they dope.  The shortest path to success, I reckon.  
  3. Emergence.  By this, I mean the exposure of new populations who may have a predisposition for performance in a certain sport, or possibly a set of advantages that may include genetics.  Here, I think of east African runners, who were non-existent in distance running until the 1960s, then won a few medals, quiet in the 1970s, but who really started emerging in the 1980s and basically took over distance running in the 1990s, and continue today. My friend Jordan Santos and I wrote a paper about this, and I think it makes for fascinating reading – it basically shows how sports globalization suddenly discovered a “rich seam” of distance talent. The same, I would suggest, is true of sprinting talent with West African descent.

Point 2 above aside (given what we know happens in East Africa), I think that the implications of Point 3 are significant – it suggests that when the whole world was being searched and ‘mined’ for athletic talent, one particular group was eventually discovered that was so rich in talent that it changed the record books and the sport within a generation. Discovering talent there was easy, and that which was discovered, went straight to the very top of the event, in historical ways.

And so there remains no physiological doubt to me, anyway, that the probability of finding a distance runner in east Africa, or a sprinter in say, Jamaica or the USA (or West Africa, where economics stand in the way), who possesses the attributes required to be world class in those events, is higher than it is anywhere else in the world.


The propensity illustration for a population predisposition

In the case of east Africa, for reasons including life-long and ancestral exposure to altitude (and the physiological effects this has), anthropometry, including long, skinny legs and long tendons (distal elongation), and cardiovascular and metabolic adaptions, east Africa produces the highest concentration of distance running talent in the world.

What this means, if I can illustrate my model with numbers, is that the likelihood or propensity to find an elite distance runner is higher in these regions.  For instance, per 1000 people, you might find 40 Kenyans who have the necessary biomechanics, physiology and neurology to succeed.  In say, Italy, or South Africa, that number might be 8.  Or 2.  

So you have a head start (of 5 to 20 fold in my example) as a result of predisposition of a greater proportion of a population.  Then onto this you add lifestyle, culture, environment, diet, economic incentives, “intellectual capital” created by generations of specific success, and the result is that Kenyans will be over-represented by maybe 50, 100 or even 1000 fold compared to other countries.

This does not mean that those other countries have zero “viable” distance runners.  It just means that to find them, and then develop them, throws up so many practical barriers that in the real world, it doesn’t happen very often.

What the thought experiment does is ask us to set aside those practical barriers.  Discard any degree of pragmatism and reality, and imagine if you could look at not 1000 people from Italy, but every single person. And then do the same for every single country.

So then, obviously, the chances of “success” will rise. Even at 1 in 350 million, you might find 8 world class sprinters.  But I don’t think it ever overcomes nature.  Not entirely.  And definitely not by 0.5s.

I think what a lot of people don’t realize, because they see only the “survivors” is that there are a lot of white (non West African descent) athletes in speed sports at younger ages.  Cornerbacks in football.  Sprinters in high school.  I bet there are more white sprinters in the USA than there are sprinters in Jamaica (this is simply a size issue).  

Yet NONE of the white sprinters have gone on to run Olympic level times, whereas dozens of Jamaicans have.  You cannot simply put this down to exposure to facilities.  If anything, the best 50 USA sprinters (white, that is) are at least matched to those from Jamaica in terms of expertise, facility and opportunity.  They differ with respects to capacity, or “ceiling”. So I don’t think that throwing resources at this population, even if unlimited, is going to transform them.

I wouldn’t discount that there is a future Olympic champion among them. Never say never, right?  Especially when you can look within the hypothetical situation proposed at the top.  But the biologist in me believes, with reasonable evidence (I don’t want to bore you with ACTN3 variants, the discussion about a “speed gene”, and then have to discuss Positive Predictive Value and Negative Predictive Value and such things!) that some people are predisposed for speed, and because the populations that have this predisposition have been ‘scouted’ or ‘mined’ for generations already, I think they already represent the pinnacle of human capability.

It’s not like we are at Generation 1 of the West African sprint phenomenon – people ARE looking thoroughly, within populations that have shown a stronger likelihood to produce world class sprinters, and have already found the “fittest”. Matching that, no matter the resources, is, in my opinion, impossible.


Darwinian sport – the fittest emerge

And therein lies the crux.  When it comes sports performance, I am a “Darwinian thinker” when it comes to sport.  I believe that with exposure of enough people to the environments that produce performance, the strongest will emerge, survive and then thrive.  And so with globalization of sport, new populations were exposed, and under the “performance pressure” (rather than evolutionary pressure), the group of people who possess the human capacity for sprinting was already observed.

Going back now, and trying to find the absolute limit, and THEN TAKING 0.5s off it?  That’s folly, in my opinion, because “the evolution of speed” has already told you which populations will rise when a given set of incentives and opportunities is applied.  It would take an almighty effort to change those incentives to rediscover a population that has already been “mined”,

It would be like mining the lands, discovering nothing, then hitting gold elsewhere, but then going back to the now abandoned mines – you’d better have some fancy new equipment to find anything at all, let alone more gold than the richest seam ever discovered!

And that’s my not so short thought for the last two days, from, um, ironically, over the West Horn of Africa somewhere.


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