Schatz Athletes 1

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!

Schatz Athletes 3

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.

Schatz Athletes 2

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.

Schatz Athletes 4

From The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964
From The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964

As I am a former journalist, I know that if you keep asking questions, in different ways, and you’re patient, your victim may very well cough up something interesting or important or both. Athletes who aren’t used to the interview may find out very quickly that they should probably avoid reporters at all costs, for their own good.

800 and 1,500 meter champion, Peter Snell, addressed this issue in his book “No Bugles No Drums“. Snell describes a possible encounter between an unwary athlete and a reporter:

Under the great conditions of stress and emotion produced by the Games atmosphere, it’s very easy for an athlete to say things he wouldn’t say in normal circumstances. It’s not difficult to imagine a runner just finishing a particularly fine trial. He’s elated by the time but, before he’s had time to evaluate it properly a pressman bowls up:

“Hullo, there. Google from the London Explode. Just a few questions.”
“Why, yeah, sure,” jogging around, jumping out of his skin.
“How’s your training programme coming along?”
“Terrific.” Still jumping. “Just ran a terrific quarter…/”
“That so?” that’s great. How do you feel you’re going to run next Tuesday?”
Still jumping. “I’ll lick the pants off that lot the way I’m feeling.”
“What’re your plans for the race? Tactics, I mean?”
“Well, after this trial, nothing scares me. I was going to hold a sprint as long as possible but I figure if it’s got to be the last lap sprint I’ll be In it.”
“You mean, you’ll sprint from the bell?”
“Oh, I guess I’ll go from about 300 yards.”
“Who’d you pick is going to be the hardest to beat?”
“Heck, I don’t even care who else is running.”

secret olympianSnell’s point? “You can be caught with your pants down in a moment of elation – or depression.”

And as described in the book, Secret Olympian: The Inside Story of the Olympic Experience, by Anon, you also need to aware of how your words can be misinterpreted. In this case, one can turn an innocent question into an answer of ungratefulness.

One of the first trials of the recently christened Olympian-to-be is the local newspaper interview. The journalist is buzzing, looking forward to an uplifting story of the local boy or girl made good.

The obligatory first question, ‘How long have you dreamed of being an Olympian?’

The automatic response, “Since I was a kid’ or ‘Since I can remember.’

Whilst such a response may make a nice sound bit and an uplifting ‘Dream comes true for local boy’ page two lead, in the main it’s not actually true. I didn’t dream about going to the Olympics and neither did most of my compatriots. We answer yes to the leading question from journalists because it seems expected and it sounds ungrateful not to have dreamt of going.

The best advice you can give an inexperienced athlete prior to engaging a reporter? Know your cliches. Watch this clip from the movie, Bull Durham, as Crash Davis teaches the rookie that “cliches are your friend.”