Olympic athletes – born or made?


With the 2012 Olympics now behind us, and a reported surge in people taking up sport, one question remains, could any of us “average joes” with the right diet and training ever make it to the Olympics in 2016? It appears not. With all the willpower and training in the world, it seems that few of us would stand a chance against the mutants that make up today’s Olympians.

The most obvious example is Michael Phelps, the American swimmer and arguably the greatest Olympian of all time. A man’s arm span usually equals his height, however, at 6’7”, Phelps’ arm span is three inches more than his height, and this gives him a clear advantage in swimming, as the arms are used for propulsive power. In addition, his lower body is shorter than usual for a man of his height, resulting in less drag through the water and his lung capacity happens to be twice that of the average man’s. Phelps also produces half the amount of lactic acid of the average man. Lactic acid builds up during muscle fatigue, preventing contraction of the muscles and causing cramp, so Phelps recovers faster than his competitors. With his double jointed ankles allowing him to kick his size 14 feet like a pair of flippers, no other swimmers seem to even get a glimpse of a gold medal.

Another example is the recent Tour de France and Olympic gold medal winner, Bradley Wiggins. Wiggins possesses a heart with an abnormally large left ventricle, the heart chamber responsible for oxygenating blood. With more oxygenated blood available, Wiggins is able to cycle for longer, harder.

Genetic mutations also can confer the capacity for extraordinary achievements: Finnish skier Euro Mantyranta won seven medals in cross country skiing during the 1960s. His remarkable achievement was later partly attributed to a mutation in his EPOR gene which improved his oxygen carrying capacity by up to 50%. This mutation basically provides the same advantages as todays performance-enhancing drugs do.

More generally: NBA players are on average 9” taller than the average American, jockeys weigh a tiny average of 8.2 stone, martial artists have unusually long arms and legs, whereas weightlifters have the opposite. Every sport has a biological abnormality that can turn into an advantage.

It is indisputable that many top athletes’ successes are down to intensive training and obsessive drive in addition to genetic endowment. Nevertheless, genetic factors limit the dream of the Olympics to be truly egalitarian. So, if you were wondering whether you can make it as an Olympian, by all means try, but you will have a much better chance if you have some lucky mutation or some out of proportion limbs.


Words : William Cooter

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