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No Envelope Left to Push

Jan. 29, 2007
Jan. 29, 2007

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Jan. 29, 2007

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No Envelope Left to Push

ALEXANDER THEGREAT wept when there were no new worlds for him to conquer. And as Lovie Smithand Tony Dungy become the first black coaches to take their teams to the SuperBowl, we move a step closer to our own Alexander moment in sports: that instantwhen we run out of meaningful benchmarks, of significant reasons to say,"No one's ever done that before."

This is an article from the Jan. 29, 2007 issue Original Layout

In matters ofrace, it's a relief that we're no longer passing milestones as if they werekidney stones—which is to say, slowly and with great pain. Trouble is, insports we may be exhausting every other way of crossing boundaries. WhenEuropean tour pro Henrik Stenson stood on the wing of a parked Airbus last weekand drove a golf ball a "record" 721 yards down a runway at Abu DhabiInternational Airport, I wept like Alexander. Or worse: I wept like DickVermeil being pepper-sprayed while screening Brian's Song.

As Stenson's Swingon a Wing demonstrated, we are inventing ever-more-pointless worlds to conquerin an effort to delude ourselves that human beings are constantly pushing theenvelope, when in fact, quite the opposite may be true: The envelope is pushingus. A 2005 study by sports scientists Alan Nevill and Gregory Whyte concludedthat "many of the established men's and women's endurance running recordsare nearing their limits." The researchers predicted that men's worldrecords in these events have as little as 1% to 3% room for improvement. Theythink the women's 1,500-meter world record of 3:50.46—set 14 years ago byYunxia Qu of China—"may well have reached its limit."

All of which is apity, not least because there is a primal joy in records for physicalachievement, the marking of mankind's eternal growth chart. Other than running,there is no activity in sports that satisfies our primitive urges like heftinga large object in the manner of Atlas. This past November in Lake George, N.Y.,English truck driver Andy Bolton became the first man to deadlift more than1,000 pounds when he picked up off the ground, then held for several seconds,1,003 pounds—the rough equivalent of Secretariat. (Indeed, that would have beenan even neater trick: a superhuman record breaker schlepping a superequineone.)

And though hisfeat should have excited much species-wide introspection into the nature of ourexistence—he's Hamlet in a singlet—Bolton received little notice. That'sbecause steroid use by others has rendered so many of our traditionalyardsticks (in baseball, in weightlifting, in track and field) suspect if notlaughable. Rule changes, such as hockey's desperate attempts to gin up scoring,make it harder than ever to compare records across eras. As a result, recordsetting, like nostalgia, ain't what it used to be.

When 49-year-oldGeorge Hood pedaled a stationary bike for a record 85 consecutive hours lastweek at a health club in Burr Ridge, Ill., it seemed to be, literally, anotherexercise in futility. And yet, anyone receiving Hood's e-mail updates—at 34hours, 49 hours, 55 hours, 71 hours and 73 hours—couldn't help but pull forhim. After the 77th hour, there ensued a long and troubling cyber silence, aninterval that ended after Hood's 85th hour with the following header: SPINNINGCHAMP IS WELL AT AREA HOSPITAL.

Hood (who is doingfine and was raising money for the families of fallen policemen) may havepulled off the past year's most impressive feat in a bicycle seat. When theTour de France champion is DQ'd for failing his drug test, one has to ask,Which sport—world-class cycling or marathon spinning—is truly going nowherefast?

When it comes tohuman achievement, the sky is not the limit. And even when it is, there arelimits. English adventurer David Hempleman-Adams this month ascended to aworld-record six miles in a hot-air balloon, dangling in an open basket in-76°F at 32,500 feet—the same height, and relative comfort level, as your lastUnited flight.

What thrills areleft, what frontiers remain, in an age when everything—even Right Guard—isconsidered "Xtreme"?

Our truly extremeathletes—home run king, world's fastest man—are now too often extranatural. Wecan at least know for certain that the kid on YouTube who takes only 10.48seconds to solve Rubik's Cube (with its 43 quintillion combinations; that's 43million times a million combinations) holds a record that is valid, if notworthwhile.

Me, I embrace thatrecord and that kid—Toby Mao of Burlingame, Calif.—because the alternative is ableak one. It will be a sad day when our only remaining trailblazers are inPortland, and the only benchmarks to be found are on Vinny Testaverde's rearend.

If you have acomment for Steve Rushin, send it to rushin@siletters.com.

As shown by Stenson's "record" for driving agolf ball while standing on an Airbus wing, we are inventingever-more-pointless worlds to conquer.

PHOTOSIMON BRUTY