"The Prize Beyond Gold" by Ian Creasey — story background

Three days before the race, when Delroy had finished warming down from a training run, his coach summoned him for a talk.  Delroy could tell it was something big.  Michito's job — assisted by his Enhanced empathy — was to become exquisitely sensitive to his athlete's mood, so as to help get the best out of him.  The attunement sometimes became mutual, and Delroy now discerned a rare eagerness in Michito's almost-natural face.

The idea for this story came to me when I watched the Olympics and noticed how often the TV pictures showed the current competitors' times against the world record for the event.  Today, we see records being broken all the time; it's not even very newsworthy.  However, it's obvious that this process can't continue indefinitely.  In any discipline, there must be a limit to what's physically possible.  Eventually, as the world record approaches this limit, it will become harder and harder to break.  New records will happen less and less often.

And so I decided to write a story in the traditional SF mode of extrapolating a trend to its limit.  I focused on the 100-metre sprint, partly because it's the most iconic event in athletics, and also because of its purity and simplicity.  There's no special equipment, or team tactics, or lengthy time-span — it's just a person running, for a few seconds.

One of the story's themes arose from my hypothesis that, as the record became ever harder to break, anyone challenging the record would have to approach ever closer to an "optimum" performance: the Platonic ideal of the perfect sprint.  For the sprinter, this would probably feel rather mechanistic, as if they were a machine following a script.  There would be no room for deviation or improvisation, because that would be sub-optimal.  Over time, the script for the optimum performance would become ever more detailed, encompassing all aspects of the athlete's life: training, nutrition, relaxation... ultimately every single waking moment.

The athlete would need a coach whose role was to determine the script for the optimum performance, in all its ever-expanding detail, and then persuade the sprinter to follow it.  And since the coach effectively specifies every aspect of the athlete's life, the coach-athlete relationship struck me as analogous to the author-character relationship.  After all, when writing a story, the author specifies every aspect of a character's existence.

So I added this analogy as a subsidiary theme: the protagonist's rigidly scripted existence stems not only from being an athlete striving to break a record, but also from being a character in an author's story.  Some of the text therefore has a double meaning.  For example, the "script" refers to both the training regime, and the story text itself; and the "finishing line" — beyond which lies freedom — refers to both the end of the race, and the final line of the story.  However, because metafictional gimmicks can easily become tiresome, I tried to present this subsidiary theme in a subtle, understated fashion: it's an optional way of interpreting the text, but the story functions perfectly well without it.

A more obvious theme within the story is the nature of fair competition.  As of March 2010, the World Anti-Doping Agency prohibited a total of 192 performance-enhancing substances and methods.  My tale would necessarily be set a long way into the future, to allow time for the world records to approach their theoretical limits.  If there are already 192 dubious techniques, it's clear that this number will explode over the course of a few decades or centuries.  What are the likely consequences?  Either the ban on performance-enhancing techniques will disappear, so that competition becomes a free-for-all; or the ban will continue, but abiding by it becomes ever more onerous.  I chose the latter option, partly because it felt more realistic, and also because it resonated with the earlier theme of my protagonist chafing under the restrictions of his tightly defined regime.

The world of the story is therefore divided into Standard humans, such as my protagonist; and Enhanced humans, with a whole range of modifications including augmented intelligence and resculpted bodies.  For example, wings are one popular Enhancement.  Flight is a symbol of freedom: in the story it represents the myriad options available to the protagonist if he rejects his career as a Standard athlete.

Finally, it's all very well to talk about themes, but a story is really composed of an array of individual details.  In a milieu where all the athletics records are approaching their ultimate limits, one such detail is the nature of those limits.  The protagonist competes in the 100-metre sprint.  What is the fastest possible time for any man to ever run that distance?

I could have avoided specifying a figure, and simply talked vaguely about a theoretical limit.  But for story-telling purposes, the concrete is usually better than the abstract.  I felt I needed a number, and so I wrote: "The record for the men's 100 metres had remained at 8.341 seconds for the past seventy years."

This figure is rather low: it is considerably lower than the 2009 world record of 9.578 seconds.  Several people who critiqued my first draft suggested that my number was unrealistic: nobody could ever run that fast.  But I intentionally used a low figure, for a couple of reasons.  The first was simply a matter of narrative craft: to make it immediately clear to readers that the milieu of the story is radically different from the present day.

The second reason is that I believe people tend to underestimate the amount of improvement that could occur over several centuries.  Random genetic variations will continue to produce humans with extraordinary abilities; over a longer period (and hence a larger population), the statistical outliers will become more exceptional.  And even when disallowing performance-boosting drugs and so forth, a lot can be done in the areas of training, nutrition, footwear, etc.  Considerable improvement has taken place already, in a relatively short time, so why should that process stop?  We can look at the data and extrapolate a curve.  Before writing the story, I researched the history of the 100-metre record and created the following chart:

Chart of world records for 100-metre sprint

The trend-line is a forecast from the historic data-points.  Although it looks straight, I haven't forced a straight-line fit.  The line is a logarithmic curve, which happens to be nearly straight because the historic times slope inexorably downward, with no sign of levelling off.  Obviously the trend must level off eventually, since the times can't reach zero.  And I certainly don't want to put forward 8.341 as a specific prediction.  My point is simply that there appears to be plenty of scope for further reductions.  It's hard to look at the historic side of the chart and argue that we're already close to the plateau.

As for what might happen if all enhancement techniques are permitted, and competition becomes a free-for-all, I reserved that idea for future development in another story.  I later wrote a sequel to "The Prize Beyond Gold", entitled "Joining the High Flyers".

Page last updated: 23 May 2015