Are we reaching the end of world records?

Technical breakthroughs have also played a role, as illustrated by the evolution of the high jump. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, U.S. Olympian Dick Fosbury shocked the world with an innovative technique called the Fosbury flop, in which he turned his back to the bar when he jumped, rather than cross it face down. Fosbury won the gold medal that year but did not break the world record. It would take several years for athletes to do so using the technique, which would ultimately enable dramatically higher jumps. That kind of advancement is not uncommon, says Jordan Taylor, a psychologist at Princeton University who studies skill acquisition. “What happens is that you basically get a little bit of a slowdown until someone comes up with a new strategy—and then when you have a new strategy, it takes a little bit of time to refine it, and then you see the progression go on,” Taylor says.

The pace of world record–breaking has slowed, as humans reach physiological limits and the International Association of Athletics Federations cracks down on doping. Berthelot is an author on two papers that suggest the rate of world record–breaking peaked in 1988. There are some exceptions to the general slowdown that has followed. One is swimming, but Berthelot calls this progress a “technological artifact” that came from the brief adoption of polyurethane swimsuits in 2008–09—and his paper suggests that, in swimming at least, we should get used to the records we have.