These three Latin words are perhaps more recognizable when translated: “Higher, Faster, Stronger”– the motto of the Olympic Games. With the 2012 summer Olympics underway, fans cannot help but appreciate the volume of athletic talent being showcased in London. Feats of strength, speed, endurance, and accuracy are regularly demonstrated, and witnessing such finely honed human abilities is both spectacular and inspiring. As world and Olympic records are broken and set on an almost daily basis, the athletes currently competing are able to show the global audience that there seem to be no limits on how far human prowess can be developed. But are we really seeing the limits of what human beings are physically capable of?
The strongest or fastest athletes in the world are not necessarily demonstrating a paranormal human ability, though they are exhibiting finely honed ones grounded in some essential human physiology. For example, the human fight-or-flight response, in which strength and speed are increased well beyond normal levels, occurs when adrenaline is released into the human body. Indeed, while our caveman ancestors depended on this mechanism to survive in their environment, this response happens selectively in modern day situations, with athletic competition being one venue in which that critical adrenaline surge is used by elite athletes to drive their gold medal performances.
But like other paranormal human abilities, the potential to transcend current human limitations is locked within our genetics. What if superhuman strength was a normal part of someone’s physiology? Science supports that possibility, particularly in light of the discovery of myostatin, a small molecule that regulates muscle mass in striking fashions. In fact, mice whose levels of myostatin were experimentally altered in the laboratory developed Herculean physiques (by mice standards), without being given any exercise regimen or steroidal treatment. As far as people are concerned, humans possess myostatin as part of their normal genetic makeup, but at tightly regulated levels which are altered with exercise. What would it take to go from Olympic strength to superstrength? Is it even possible?
Where speed is concerned, the fastest human on earth still has a maximal landspeed well below that of the fastest land animal, the cheetah. Granted, evolution has anatomically and physiologically optimized the cheetah to be the fastest hunting machine on land, with changes to their muscles at the molecular level. Again, like most things demonstrated in nature, humans possess the same type of machinery encoded within their genetics, but it remains largely inaccesible… for now. While human speeds that come close to the speed of light will remain firmly in the world of science fiction, the mere possibility of moving at three to four times faster than the fastest human on earth would be considered well beyond normal human ability.
For now, until science or evolution unlocks human potential further, only training will enhance our natural physical abilities. So while the Olympic Games continue to amaze spectators with jaw-dropping demonstrations of skill, what will remain captivating is the possibility that superhuman versions of the abilities we observe are hidden deep within the library of DNA that we each possess.