There is evidence to suggest that athletes are both better reaching the limits of human ability — but there's also evidence that current humans are woefully and irreparably less fit than their ancestors. Which is it?
The modern world yields many benefits to its human inhabitants. Efficiently cultivated farm land, wonderful transportation systems, and a great deal of research into nutrition mean that, from conception through death, many modern people are eating better than any generation before them. Anyone touring an ancient building can't help but notice low doorways and small beds, indicating that the human race was once much smaller than it currently is. Athletes have grown in size and ability; have grown out of proportion to the rest of the human race. The average person has grown two inches in the last century. The average champion swimmer has grown over four. The average winning runner has grown more than six inches. In most sports, bigger animals perform better, and people have been growing bigger.
More than that, humans now have the ability to scour the globe for the best athletes. If a certain body type needs to meet up with a certain training program in order to produce the best athlete, money and resources are available to bring them together — even if half the globe stands between them. There is no race, meet, game, or competition more than a half day's flight away. Getting the best natural athlete on Earth the best training on Earth is merely a matter of someone having the patience to find them.
Finally, sheer numbers are on the side of the modern human. The world is edging up to a population of 7 billion. Ancient societies can't begin to compete with that size of a talent pool. So it's no wonder that two researchers from South Korea recently released a paper saying that sports will reach the upper limit of human athletic achievement within a decade. Runners will run no faster, nor will swimmer swim any more quickly than they do in the year 2021. We've reached the end of the line.
In more ways than one, some would say. If there is one thing that most people lack, compared to the humans of ancient times, it's the life of constant athleticism. Before pipes carried water to you, every trip to the bathroom or a glass of water included a walk, a squat, and an ability to gather up water. Every piece of food needed to be gathered, carried, and defended. Every day would include walking, climbing, sprinting and perhaps swimming. According to the not-at-all-controversially-titled book, Manthropology; The Science of the Inadequate Modern Male, there is no amount of training that can compare to the daily life of ancient peoples.
People threw spears farther than modern javelin throwers, Roman soldiers walked nearly 40 miles a day with fifty pounds of supplies, rowers were better, and runners were faster. One runner in particular has gained fame. T8 has left nothing behind but tracks in some hardened sand. Living 20,000 years ago, this Australian ran in some sand which through lucky chance was preserved. Analysis of T8's footprints show a running speed of 38 kilometers per hour, accelerating towards the end of the prints.
Usain Bolt, famous for being the fastest runner ever recorded, has exceeded that speed. To win a gold medal, he reached a speed of 42 kilometers per hour. He reached that speed with spikes, on a track, after being selected through an arduous process of meets and eliminations. T8, on the other hand, was running barefoot on sand. It could be that T8 just happened to be the fastest human being on earth, but more likely T8's speed was normal for the time, meaning that many people in T8's society could outrun a modern gold medalist.
And so the question remains; are we the best or the worst? Have humans trained to the peak of their ability, or have we fallen through the cracks?