Thursday, April 4, 2013

Bodies Built for Olympic Gold

This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal during the 2012 Summer Olympics. The basic implication is that if Success in Sport = Genetics x Environment, and if all top international athletes have roughly equal environments (e.g., training facilities, coaching expertise, nutrition programs, time available to train, reinforcement -- which is called "commitment" in the article), then the only part of the equation left that can explain variance in outcome (i.e., why some athletes medal and others don't) is genetics.


"Of all the superlatives connected with the London Olympics, none may be more remarkable than this: The games will feature the most extraordinary collection of physical specimens in the history of international sports.

Whether it's the chest-high legs that carry sprinter Usain Bolt down the track, or the raw power that 17-year-old swimmer Missy Franklin can generate from her 6-foot-1 frame and 76-inch wing span, the Olympic stars this summer have bodies custom-built for the sports they compete in. To borrow Lady Gaga's phrase, many of these medalists were simply "born this way."


With high-level training so ubiquitous, God-given talent and physical advantages become the great differentiators. Consider Ms. Franklin, the precocious swimmer from Colorado who could win as many as seven medals in London, several of them gold, during the summer before her senior year in high school.

Todd Schmitz, her coach since she was 7 years old, said she didn't have naturally beautiful strokes as a beginner, but her size always gave her a distinct advantage.

"She's just always been so strong," said Missy's mother, D.A. Franklin, citing the stamina this gives her. "She's stronger racing at 200 meters than she is at 100 meters. She's better in the long pool than she is in the short pools."

Ms. Franklin doesn't actually train all that hard, swimming 5,000 to 6,000 yards a day, or about half as far as Michael Phelps does. She usually takes off two days a week; most top swimmers take just one. But Ms. Franklin is a near-lock to win gold in the 200-meter backstroke and may win the 100 meters because she swims differently than everyone else.

Most backstrokers crank their hands through the water 6 to 8 inches below the surface. But Ms. Franklin catches the water just 2 inches below the surface, according to Mr. Schmitz.
Ms. Franklin isn't rotating her shoulders irregularly. Rather, her longer arms and legs exert so much downward pressure that she is actually higher in the water than the competition. She skitters across the surface like a hydroplane, while her competitors power through it.

The ultimate Olympic outlier may be Usain Bolt, the 6-foot-5-inch sprinter who excels in a discipline where height was long thought to be a disadvantage. The reason: a quick start is essential, and unfolding a bigger frame can waste precious time in a race decided by hundredths of a second.


Mr. Bolt...has shown how the physics of the race actually favor him. At its core, running speed is about finding the most mechanically efficient balance between stride length and stride frequency. Sprinters cover ground by falling forward with every step. The body rises and falls in an arc. The longer the legs, the bigger the arc. But steps too far out in front of the center of mass throw off balance and slow a runner.

Mr. Bolt's waist is some 4 feet off the ground—his legs are proportionally longer than his torso. This allows him to create the race's biggest, most efficient arc. He takes a little more than 40 steps to complete the race. His competition takes about 45.


This is very bad news for Mr. Bolt's competition. If he starts cleanly and runs his normal race, he essentially can't lose."

End Excerpts

The on-line article also has some interesting interactive graphics that are worth checking out. I particularly like the Missy Franklin and Usain Bolt features.

It is interesting to contrast the above story about human athletes with this article about Man O'War, the greatest racehorse of the first half of the 20th century. An excerpt:

"Not only did Man o' War perform like a superstar on the track, the chestnut-colored horse (though he was nicknamed "Big Red") looked like one. At 3, he was a strapping 16.2 hands (about 5-foot-6) and weighed about 1,125 pounds with a 72-inch girth. His appetite also was huge, as he ate 12 quarts of oats every day, or about three quarts more than the average racehorse. He ran in big bounds as well, with his stride measuring an incredible 25 to 28 feet.  Bred by August Belmont II, son of the founder of Belmont Park and for whom the Belmont Stakes was named, the future champion was foaled on March 29, 1917 at Nursery Stud near Lexington, Ky. His sire was Fair Play and his dam was Mahubah, the daughter of Rock Sand, the 1903 winner of Britain's version of the Triple Crown (the 2,000 Guineas, the Epsom Derby and the St. Leger). He was 15 generations removed from the Godolphin Arabia, one of three Arab and Barb stallions considered to be the founders of the thoroughbred line."

How long until we start hearing about the "breeding lines" of elite human athletes?

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