The Olympics: AKA The International Convention for Diverse Body Shapes and Sizes

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I was 20 years old. A friend and I bought the cheapest seats in Madison Square Garden for a New York Knicks – Los Angeles Lakers game. Sometime during the game, we made our move from the nose-bleed seats downwards, going down steps, slipping by ushers, sliding over barriers, getting closer and closer to the court. And suddenly, there we were, walking courtside. And there they were, the NBA players, and I couldn’t believe how big they were. I vividly recall staring at Kareem Abdul Jabbar as we nonchalantly strolled the sideline. He was huge!

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Olympians on the whole I suppose share this fascination. In the Olympic Village, you essentially have the very best athletes in their disciplines in the world, and very often, body shape and size are determinants in who reaches world class. As the anonymous author of “The Secret Olympian” wrote:

The best thing about the Village, even better than the famous people, food and free stuff is the amazing variety of humankind. Pick a corner in the shade and sit and watch for half an hour. It’s like going on a human safari or to the Crufts of all mankind: all colours, shapes and creeds. The contrast emphasises the wonderful diversity of the human race. Watch a basketball game and everyone’s tall – so no one looks it. In the Village you might get a 14-year-old Russian gymnast sitting between a 130kg Turkish weightlifter and a seven-foot Chinese basketball player.

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I am currently reading a fascinating book by David Epstein called The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performancehe Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, which goes deep on the eternal debate of whether it is nature or nurture that determines one’s life’s direction, one’s future avenues for success. Here are some of the author’s observations regarding physical attributes of athletes in specific sports, and the strong correlation between them and success:

  • One reason that marathon runners tend to be diminutive is because small humans have a larger skin surface area compared with the volume of their body. The greater one’s surface area compared with volume, the better the human radiator and the more quickly the body unloads heat. Heat dissipation is critical for endurance performance, because central nervous system forces a slowdown or complete stop of effort when the body’s core temperature passes about 104 degrees.
  • Athletes who have to rotate in the air – divers, figure skaters, and gymnasts. In the last thirty years, elite female gymnasts have shrunk from 5’3″ on average to 4’9″.
  • Measurements of elite Croatian water polo players from 1980 to 1998 show that over two decades the players’ arm lengths increased more than an inch, five times as much as those of the Croatian population during the same period.
  • Top athletes in jumping sports – basketball, volleyball – now have short torsos and comparatively long legs, better for accelerating the lower limbs to get a more powerful lift off.
  • Professional boxers come in an array of shapes and sizes, but many have the combination of long arms and short legs, giving greater reach but a lower and more stable center of gravity.
  • The world’s top competitors in the 60-meter sprint are almost always shorter than those in the 100-, 200-, and 400-meter sprints, because shorter legs and lower mass are advantageous for acceleration.
  • Longer trunks and shorter legs make for greater surface area in contact with the water, the equivalent of a longer hull on a canoe, a boon for moving along water at high speed.

The pictures in this post are by Howard Schatz, who has taken photos of athletes and compiled them in a coffee book called Athlete.

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