Details of Nike's Pro TurboSpeed suit
Courtesy Nike Details of Nike's Pro TurboSpeed suit

A recent Economist article reports that Stanford University scientist Mark Denny's hypothesizes that human athletic performance may have reached its limit. Denny's declaration is based on 100 of records in a variety of competitions, coupled with a study of the physical capabilities of the human anatomy.

One dimension of athletic competitions that merits more exploration is the advancing technology of sportswear. Viewers of the 2008 Beijing Olympics will recall the infamous swimsuits that allowed athletes to break 22 world records that year, for example. This summer, Nike's Pro TurboSpeed attire has provided Olympic track and field participants with Nike's fastest apparel—"up to 0.023 seconds faster over 100m" than Nike's previous uniform. The clothing makes use of advanced lightweight textiles with minimal edge finishes, coupled with strategically spaced dimples called "zoned aerodynamics" that have demonstrated superior performance in wind tunnel testing. TurboSpeed is mostly made of recycled polyester and PET bottles (approximately 82 percent), proving that high performance need not be sacrificed for environmental responsibility.

Although Denny's study of human physiological limits is respectable, continued performance advances in athletic apparel will doubtless enable the breaking of future world records. An important question will be how much apparel-based technological advantage Olympic juries will permit in athletic competitions. (For example, the record-breaking swimsuits of 2008 are now banned.) The issue of unfair advantage aside, the establishment of artificial limits on technological capability is ultimately shortsighted. Once such rules are relinquished, we may witness a greater acceptance of technological progress and its benefits for human performance.

It won't be an easy road, though. As the buzz surrounding Oscar Pistorius's carbon-fiber, prosthetic-powered 400m race demonstrates, questions of how much technology is allowed to enhance human physiology are here to stay.