Are Olympians born or made?

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Yelena Isinbayeva
Russian Yelena Isinbayeva before the Pole Vault Final at the London 2012 Olympic Games. PHOTO: FRANCK FIFE / AFP / Getty Images

By Dr Soledad Echegoyen/Sports Medicine Specialist

When you see the bodies of Olympic athletes, it's easy to wonder whether they were moulded by hours of intense training or whether they were born with that physique already in the locker.

When we assess an athlete, we often make judgments about their body, or we try to explain why a swimmer won so many medals, and whether it is because their arms are longer or their back is wider. For every sport, body shape is different: height, limb diameter, length of arms or legs. 

Their composition, too: bone density, weight, fat, muscle, height to weight ratio. The combination of these can affect success in sport.

Photographer Howard Schatz took 125 photographs of champion athletes which were compiled in the book Athlete. It is clear from these that, depending on the sport, body shape changes. Several researchers have reported that the body develops according to training, which is why in sports where strength is predominant, the muscular component prevails, while in other sports such as distance running, which require aerobic endurance, athletes have less body fat and are lower in height, but have longer legs. 

Watch: The little boy who grew up to beat his Olympic idol Michael Phelps

Body skill depends on what is required; some sports require a lot of coordination, performing spins in the air or balancing on a beam; others require running long distances or making quick, coordinated movements with respect to another partner.

In swimmers, the shape of the torso is very important, both length and girth; in swimmers with the same height, mass and body surface, the upper body shape has different hydrodynamic resistance at the same speed (Papic & Sanders). Swimmers with longer arms have greater propulsion in the swim, so they move faster. In their body composition, the muscular element prevails, but in some disciplines the athlete's body proportion requires them to be tall and slim.

Belinda Hocking
Australian Belinda Hocking in the 200 metres backstroke at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on 11 August 2016. | PHOTO: FRANCOIS-XAVIER MARIT / AFP via Getty Images

However, these body shapes have changed over the years. For instance, a study analysing the characteristics of gymnasts between 1996 and 2016 showed how the size and shape of gymnasts have been changing (Atikovic, Anthropometric Characteristics of Olympic Female and Male Artistic Gymnasts from 1996 to 2016. International Journal of Morphology 2020).

Obvious transformations

Dominique Moceanu
American gymnast Dominique Moceanu on the balance beam at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. (Photo by Jim Davis / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Gymnasts have usually been small, as this gives them an advantage in balance and an ease to turn on the vault. They have less weight but have great strength in relation to their weight. The height and weight of female gymnasts has increased over the years, by 42.4 cm and 5.77 kg respectively. There have been no changes in men. It should be noted that the age to compete in the Olympics has also increased, as the age for women has risen by 4.02 years and for men by 2.5 years.

The gymnasts' bodies have transformed in order to perform today's feats. They are small, but have great muscular development in their arms and torso, enabling them to perform and coordinate all the vaulting horses and turns on the bars and to propel themselves on the floor. The beauty standards of the past do not correspond to today's body shape. Body standards are different, as Olympic champion Simone Biles said: “Today, I say I am done competing vs beauty standards and the toxic culture of trolling when others feel as though their expectations are not met because nobody should tell you what beauty should or should not look like” (Interview in Shape, 2020).

Simone Biles
American Simone Biles on the balance beam at the 49th Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, 13 October 2019 (PHOTO: Ulrik Pedersen / NurPhoto via Getty Images).

Physical characteristics have also been studied in runners, and aerobic capacity, body composition, thigh length, anaerobic threshold, running economy, energy expenditure and stride length have been found to influence performance. Long-distance runners have low body fat, high lean mass and low leg mass and longer leg length, which has resulted in greater running efficiency. There is even a difference in race-walking athletes depending on the race distance; those who compete in 20km competitions have more muscle mass, more body fat and larger girths compared to athletes in 50km competitions.

Andre de Grasse and Usain Bolt
Canadian Andre de Grasse and Jamaican Usain Bolt in the 200 metres semifinals at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (PHOTO: Ian MacNi / Getty Images)

In team sports, body composition is different for each sport and is also defined according to the position played. In volleyball, where precision and power are important, fast and powerful athletes are required. Research finds that training should be evaluated constantly, monitoring jumps in relation to technical and tactical aspects and skills. Basketball players are taller with larger body diameters and greater body volume and mass, and have more body fat than football players because their sport has different particularities of execution.

A body (and training) for each sport

Anthropometric characteristics have always been considered for monitoring purposes, especially bearing in mind the selection of future champions, as some authors mention that morphological characteristics can influence success (Akşıt et al., 2017; Atikovic, 2020; Masanovic et al., 2018).

It should be remembered that body development is not only related to training; it requires a combination of physiological and physical characteristics, as well as hereditary, nutritional and socio-cultural factors.

Watch: Devastated Olympic athlete axed weeks before the start of the Games

It is also important to consider that all specialties require years of training and practice, and some sports, such as gymnastics, require a very early start. Success in sport depends on targeted training, organisation, individual adaptation to training schedules, competition experience, motivation and psychological factors, as well as body shape and body type contributing to better performance. Training will lead to the development of physical capacities, which are specific to strength, speed, power, aerobic endurance, psychomotor speed, coordination and flexibility depending on the sport. And to top it all off, there is technique, which sometimes makes the difference in similar bodies or even in bodies with differences.

An example of the latter is Michael Phelps, who has all the required characteristics of a swimmer: stature, arm length and great flexibility. But he also has a technique that allows him to have greater propulsion not only in his swimming but also in the kick that he performs underwater on entering and turning. His torso and head remain fixed, and his arms are outstretched, while his torso from the lumbar spine coordinates with his lower limbs to perform the undulating movement of the dolphin kick.

Michael Phelps
American swimmer Michael Phelps competes in the 200 metres butterfly at the London 2012 Olympic Games at London Olympic Park | PHOTO: Francois Xavier Marit / AFP / GettyImages)

We might sometimes consider that shape is the most important aspect, but there are differences in the same Olympic athletes in one type of sport. Genes play an important role in this and in some physical characteristics. Shape is very important, but we must always remember that a body without good technique will not win, and without the motivation and support of the people around it, it will face a barrier. As Simone Biles said when asked what advice she would give to someone who wants to be like her: “Never give up and write down your goals. And always wake up in the morning and do something that you love to do, that you are passionate about”.

An athlete is born and made. It is the combination of all factors that makes athletes reach the winners’ podium.

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