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For many years I lived in Eugene, Oregon, also known as “track-town USA” for its long tradition in track and field. Each summer high-profile meets like the United States National Championships or Olympic Trials would bring world-class competitors to the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field. It was exciting to bump into great athletes at the local cafe or ice cream shop, or even find myself lifting weights or running on a track next to them. One morning I was shocked to be passed as if standing still by a woman running 400-meter repeats. Her training pace was as fast as I could run a flat out sprint over a much shorter distance.
The simple fact was that she was an extreme outlier, and I wasn’t. Athletic performance follows a normal distribution, like many other quantities in nature. That means that the number of people capable of exceptional performance falls off exponentially as performance levels increase. While an 11-second 100-meter can win a high school student the league or district championship, a good state champion runs sub-11, and among 100 state champions only a few have any hope of running near 10 seconds.
Keep going along this curve, and you get to the freaks among freaks—competitors who shatter records and push limits beyond imagination. When Carl Lewis dominated sprinting in the late 1980s, sub-10 second 100m times were rare, and anything in the 10-second flat range guaranteed a high finish, even at the Olympics. Lewis was a graceful 6 feet 2 inches, considered tall for a sprinter. Heights much greater than his were supposed to be a disadvantage for a sprinter, forcing a slower cadence and reduced speeds—at least that was the conventional wisdom.
So no one anticipated the coming of a Usain Bolt. At a muscular 6 feet 5 inches, and finishing almost half a second faster than the best of the previous generation, he seemed to come from another species entirely. His stride length can reach a remarkable 9.3 feet,1 and, in the words of a 2013 study in the European Journal of Physics, demonstrated performance that “is of physical interest since he can achieve, until now, accelerations and speeds that no other runner can.”2
Bolt’s times weren’t just faster than anyone else in the world. They were considerably faster even than those of a world-class runner from the previous generation that was using performance-enhancing drugs. The Jamaican-born Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson achieved a world-record time of 9.79 seconds at the 1988 Olympic Games, beating Lewis and boasting that he’d have been faster if he hadn’t raised his hand in victory just ahead of the finish line. It would later be found out that he’d been using steroids.
The potential improvements achievable by doping effort are relatively modest.
Even the combination of an elite runner and anabolic steroids, though, was not enough to outcompete a genetic outlier. Bolt achieved a time of 9.58 seconds at the 2009 World Athletics Championship, setting a world record and beating his own previous record by a full tenth of a second.
We find a similar story in the NBA with Shaquille O’Neal. O’Neal was the first 7-footer in the league who retained the power and agility of a much smaller man. Neither a beanpole nor a plodding hulk, he would have been an athletic 200-pounder if scaled down to 6 feet in height. When Shaq got the ball near the hoop, no man (or sometimes even two men) could stop him from dunking it. Soon after his entry into the league, basket frames had to be reinforced to prevent being destroyed by his dunks. After the Lakers won three championships in a row, the NBA was forced to change their rules drastically—allowing zone defenses—in order to reduce Shaq’s domination of the game. Here was a genetic outlier whose performance was unequalled by anyone else in a league that has long been criticized for its soft anti-doping policy; for example, it only added blood testing for human growth hormone to its program last year. Whatever doping may have been going on, it wasn’t enough to get anyone to Shaq’s level…