What Makes an Olympian?
Millions grow up dreaming about competing in the Olympic Games, but few ever get there.
In 2012, the world’s population was a touch more than 7 billion. The number of athletes who competed in the Summer Olympics that same year was roughly 10,700. According to Bill Mallon, the co-founder of the International Society of Olympic Historians, that puts the chances of making it that far at around 1 in 562,400.
To put that in perspective, the chances of being struck by lightning are about 1 in 12,000.
With such minuscule odds, what separates those who win gold and those who watch on the couch?
Athletes are getting bigger, faster and stronger over time. Times considered elite just 50 years ago now wouldn’t even qualify athletes for the Games.
So, just how is it that those athletes reach that stage?
When it comes to earning a chance to compete at the Olympic Games, the data show that a lot of it has to do with where you start. For the data paramount to this story, which includes 26 track and swimming events over the past 16 Summer Olympiads dating back to 1952, there are distinct advantages relating to where athletes are born.
From those events, 44 finalists were from the Los Angeles metro area. The next closest metro area, New York City, lagged behind with 23.
For one, the weather helps, says UCLA urban planning doctoral student Patrick Adler, who focuses on economic development and tracked Olympic data as a fellow at the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute.
“The ability to train year-round at any income level is unusual in America,” he says. “If you’re a track athlete from a privileged background, you can train 12 months a year. But even if you’re not from a privileged background, you’re a lower-income person, you can still train all year [in Los Angeles]. So that’s a big thing.”
While year-round training constitutes a certain advantage for athletes from warm-weather cities, it is far from the only predictor. If it were, there would be flocks of athletes from warm-weather states like Arizona and Louisiana, which isn’t the case.
Adler says it has more to do with what he refers to as network effects. Once success hits the area, more athletes are likely to stay and potentially raise the next generation of Olympic athletes.
“Once you get a few extra people, a few extra track athletes, that creates a culture around track, it creates more services around track and then it’s kind of a snowball process that happens,” he says. “It all really has to do with the increasing return of being in a place.”
While athletes certainly do come from hotbeds like Los Angeles, there are anomalies.
Jen Rhines competed in three different Olympic Games between 2000 and 2008. A versatile long-distance runner, she participated in the 5,000 meters, the 10,000 meters and the marathon. Her best Olympic finish was 14th place in the 5,000-meter race in Beijing in 2008.
Rhines was born and raised in Syracuse, New York, an outlier when it comes to competing at the Summer Olympics. While she may have been at a competitive disadvantage coming from a relatively Summer Olympian-less area, her college years provided her with the network effects so often needed to compete at the highest level.
She received a full scholarship to Villanova University, a long-distance running powerhouse in the early 1990s.
That scholarship essentially put her on par with those who came from areas with network effects.
“I think that really set me up to keep running as a professional and go on to make the Olympic team because I felt like I learned that culture at Villanova,” she says. “So I think that there was probably a huge advantage maybe over (others) if I hadn’t gone there because I kind of felt like I fell into line and I wanted to follow what others had done before me and become part of the tradition.”
Rhines was able to work with and be mentored by former Olympians during her time with the Wildcats.
Though Rhines wasn’t born in a city filled with network effects, her college choice provided her with just what she needed.
In the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, American Lindy Remigino won the 100-meter dash with a time of 10.79. He stood at 5-foot-7 and weighed 147 pounds. Fast forward 60 years and Usain Bolt has just won yet another gold medal. His time, 9.63, was more than a second faster than Remigino, and the Jamaican stands in at 6-foot-4, 189 pounds.
Though Remigino was smaller than most of his opponents, and Bolt is larger than most of his, the comparison is part of a larger trend.
Olympic runners are getting taller and heavier, particularly in shorter-distance events.
Looking at 12-year windows, the average men’s 100-meter finalist between 1960 and 1972 stood at 5-foot-8 and weighed 164 pounds. From 2000 to 2012, the same event produced a group of athletes that averaged more than six feet tall and weighed 13 pounds heavier than their counterparts of 40 years earlier.
Kevin Norton, a professor of exercise science at the University of South Australia, explains that while it used to be believed that taller athletes couldn’t become elite sprinters because they couldn’t generate enough leg speed, Bolt has completely debunked that theory.
“While his leg speed is slower over the first 20 or 30 meters, he can reach the same angular velocity as shorter runners in full flight,” Norton says, while noting that Bolt is slower over the first 60 meters than some of his opponents. “Having said that, I think we will eventually see taller athletes discovered who are taller and who will be able to generate very rapid leg movement, even over the first 60 meters and who will therefore break all current records.”
At the same time, as shorter-distance athletes continue to get larger and faster, long-distance runners, like Rhines, show no trend of changing in size. Though the 5,000-meter distance only became an Olympic event in 1996, the 14th place finisher that year, Anita Weyermann, measured 5-foot-3, 108 pounds. Rhines, when she competed in the three Olympiads after Weyermann, stood at 5-foot-2, 106 pounds.
Both fall in line with the overall average 5,000-meter running female Olympian, who is 5-foot-3, 106 pounds.
“It is an advantage to be lighter if you compete in longer distances, because, primarily, you expend less energy to move your body mass the distance required,” Norton says.
Compared to the average woman competing in the 100-meter race, the 5,000-meter runner is about two inches shorter and 21 pounds lighter.
Researchers have also noted the progression of world records has stagnated over the past two decades after rapid growth over much of the past century. They suggest that Olympians, almost always full-time athletes, have reached their athletic peak.
Although Norton acknowledges that record-breaking is slowing down, he doesn’t necessarily agree with the idea that records will stop being broken any time soon.
“Now that sport is often a career, worth an enormous amount in terms of fame and fortune and there is far greater opportunity in sections of society not previously included,” he says, citing scholarships for low-income children as well as increased global scouting. “This, of course, brings with it greater odds of finding more talent at the extremes.”
When Rhines first began running as a professional in the mid-1990’s, she remembers simply using a stopwatch and occasionally a heart rate monitor to gather feedback when training.
But in today’s digital age, those devices are nearly obsolete as analytics have become a major piece of training for today’s world-class athletes. Rhines says she now trains with a GPS watch every day. In addition, there are new technologies that allow runners to measure foot strike among other technical factors.
“We have more training devices that collect data now,” Rhines says. “There’s definitely tons of different tools available that I think helps supplement training. But I guess I still feel like, over all the time that I’ve been doing this, it’s still the same general training, though.”
Cliff Rovelto has been coaching track and field for the past 38 years, including serving 24 seasons as the head coach of the Kansas State program. In addition, he has coached numerous Olympians, including silver medalist high jumpers Erik Kynard and Matt Hemingway, as well as heptathlete Austra Skujyte.
Scheduled to be a member of the 2016 Team USA Olympic staff, Rovelto says that in today’s world of iPads and high-tech cameras, the use of video has become commonplace, particularly in practice.
However, he cautions that an increased dependence on film has actually hurt coaches’ ability to help athletes make adjustments.
“In practice, the athlete can come over and look at the video right away,” he says. “And all of that is good. It’s wonderful to have and it makes things easier. But I think in that, what happens is if you take that iPad away, and then you ask the coach to give the athlete feedback, and the athlete is trying to evaluate what they just did, it’s very difficult for many of them to do that.”
While Rovelto believes the advent of easily accessible video might be hurting today’s coaches, Rhines says there is no doubt that increased film is a trend, and that it can be extremely helpful.
“It can be a huge help if you drill to go back and take a look at the drill on video,” she says. “I tend to fall in that category that may think I’m changing something, but what I’m doing doesn’t match up with that my mind thinks I’m doing. So it really helps to see if visually. That’s definitely a trend.”
The increase in readily available video is not only helpful for athletes looking to critique themselves. Video-sharing websites like YouTube allow athletes and coaches an opportunity to share training tips to up-and-coming athletes around the world.
“What I’ve seen today, compared to 25 or 30 years ago, is that, and a lot of this has to do with the Internet in addition to more coaching education programs not only in our country, but around the world, there are programs now that weren’t in existence 30 years ago,” Rovelto says. “So the quality of education is very good and the access to that education is much improved.”
He also noted that for runners too old to compete in juniors, yet too young to compete at the professional level, the American college sports system provides athletes an opportunity unlike any other throughout the world.
Rhines is a perfect example of that, as she rose to prominence at Villanova, and was guided by past Wildcat runners in her quest of reaching the Olympic Games.
“I was able to be kind of mentored by some of the people that were great before me like Sonya Sullivan,” she says. “When I was struggling my freshman year, she took the time out to kind of help me along the way and help me get going so I was a part of the tradition. But I feel like the success we had there kind of helped in moving up to the national and Olympic-class level.”
While there are geographical, physical and training advantages associated with success at the Olympic Games, it takes much more than just the physical to bring home medals. In fact, looking at data among gold medalists and fourth-place finishers—those who finished just off the podium—there are surprisingly few physical differences between the two groups.
As an example, looking at data from the women’s 5,000-meter run—one of Rhines’ events—there is very little difference between the sample of first-place finishers and fourth place. Both groups stand in at approximately 5-foot-3, while the gold medalist groups weighs, on average, just one pound heavier.
Dr. Jim Bauman, a longtime sports psychologist for Team USA, says that it is often the athletes who are most “pliable,” or best able to adapt to different circumstances, that often come away successful at the Olympics.
“If the swimming pool is two degrees warmer or colder than you’d like it to be, well, you really can’t do anything about it,” Bauman says. “Make the adjustment. Let other people deal with that in a negative way. But you need to be adaptable, you need to move, you need to change, you need to be chameleon-like.”
While television broadcasters and athletes often credit emotions for success or carrying them to victory, Bauman argues that the most successful athletes keep emotion away from their competitions. He says that the ideal is ratio is somewhere around 90 percent doing and 10 percent thinking and emotions.
More than 80,000 fans watched inside the stadium and millions more across the world watched on television as Usain Bolt won the 100-meter dash at the 2012 London Summer Olympics.
With that many fans watching and cheering, it can create pressure, excitement and adrenaline. However, too much of those factors can prove detrimental to an athlete’s performance.
Alex Auerbach, a Senior Sport and Performance Psychology consultant at the University of North Texas, cites the Yerkes-Dodson law, a relationship between arousal and performance, as a factor in determining success.
“It’s essentially the idea that there is a point on this curve where you’re going to be likely to perform at your best, typically where your challenge matches your skill,” he says. “And so there’s a point on this curve, where you’re too far to one side, you’re going to be over-aroused and you’re not going to perform well.”
Bauman, who also served as a full-time sports psychologist at the University of Virginia and the University of Washington, says that handling the pressure of the Olympics, which only take place once every four years, is unlike anything athletes can prepare for in college. Citing the “we always have next week” philosophy prevalent on college campuses, Bauman says as a sports psychologist, he attempts to prepare athletes to perform on demand on a given day.
Rhines notes that although there are differences, the college scheduling system ingrains a mentality of competing at the highest level on the most important occasions.
“I feel like you kind of learn that along the way. It’s kind of the nature of the sport,” she says. “And you develop the skills to get the most out of yourself on those championship days. And I think you learn along the way the skills necessary to execute the best you can on those most important days.”
Sports psychologists differ in their methods, but those in the profession are universal in their goal: helping athletes take what they have been practicing for years and perform on demand when it counts the most.
Auerbach says that although there is no one psychological factor that can predict Olympic success, the athletes that can block out the noise are often the ones that find themselves on the podium.
“If you’ve got two athletes running the 100-meter and they’re neck and neck, in my mind the first athlete that starts to pay attention to what the other one is doing is going to be the one that loses because they’re not going to be paying attention to what’s happening in the race,” he says. “Which one of them is present in the competition may be the one that’s going to win.”
Other Olympic photos are used through Creative Commons licensing. Matt Rogers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org