So you want to be an Olympian?
During the 2012 Olympics gold medal-winning rower Helen Glover admitted that she had only begun rowing four years before, after her mother had seen an advert in the newspaper looking for “tall people”. The advert was for UK Sport’s “Sporting Giants program”, looking for potential athletes who were tall (a minimum of 6’3” or 190cm for men and 5’11” or 180cm for women), young (between 16 and 25), and with some sort of athletic background.
The success of the Sporting Giants program as well as UK Sports more recent programs “Girls4Gold” and “Tall and Talented”, begs the question whether you can pick out which sport you might excel at, from your body size and shape.
In the 1940’s a psychologist called William Sheldon classified the human physique into the three distinct types shown below. He recognized that most people are actually a combination of the different types and so devised a numerical representation, giving seven degrees for each body shape. For example, 4-4-4 would be someone showing equal numbers of characteristics of each body type and 2-6-2 would indicate low endomorphy, high mesomorphy and low ectomorphy.
The influence of body type on sports
Generally the higher you are in mesomorphy (muscularity) the more likely you are to do well in sports and this has even been found within specific sports particularly football. Ectomorphs may struggle to build muscle and to gain weight but are agile and coordinated and may make the best long distance runners, road cyclists and basketball players. Endomorphs can build muscle but generally have higher fat levels, slower metabolisms and may have difficulty loosing weight but endomorphs may also have the advantage that they are less likely to get injured and many team-sport players have endomorph traints.
However, the research does not agree completely and there huge variation within the successful athletes of every sports. For example the comparison between the endomorphic-mesomorph body shape of Rooney and the more ectomorphic-mesomorph forms of Messi, Bale or Ronaldo.
Can you change your body type
Your body type comes from your parents and is established at birth but your body shape can be changed with diet and training. Recent research suggests that the split between nature (what you are born with) and nurture (what you do with it) is about 55:45. Mesomorphs may find it easier to build muscle but there is no evidence that any one body type builds better muscle or that people are necessarily born as sprinters, long distance runners, tennis or rugby players.
The only exception is possibly with height. Being tall has always been seen as an advantage in netball, basketball, volleyball and rowing but the current trend is towards larger athletes in other sports. This has been particularly noticeable in tennis and sprinting. Short compact powerful sprinters used to be seen as quick, with larger athletes thought to take more time to get out of the blocks, however, with Usain Bolt standing at 6ft 5in, emphasis is now on enhanced stride length and powerful levers. Similarly tennis has shifted with the top 4 men in the world being over 6ft and highlighting the benefits of long leavers in the overarm serve. Though it is also worth noting that Serena Williams is just 5’9 and Shelly Anne Faser Pryce who dominates female sprinting is only 5ft.
Being small can also be beneficial for some sports notably horse racing, motor racing and cycle sprinting and for endurance events such as marathons. Haile Gebrselassie, was 5’5.
So are there sporting genes?
There has been research that has found ‘sporting genes’ and there are now over 200 identifiable genes that are linked to enhanced sports performance. For example the EPOR (erythropoietin receptor) gene, controlling red blood cell production can mutate producing abnormally high red blood cell counts. Finnish researchers have identified an entire family with this EPOR mutation, several of whom have been champion endurance athletes, including the cross-country ski gold medalist Eero Mantyranta. Other research has shown that one in five Europeans cannot produce the alpha-actinin-3 protein found in fast-twitch muscle fibers. High functioning fast-twitch muscle fibers are crucial for speed and power sports.
So if you want to be an Olympian there is really no reason why that should not be the case, with enough training and the right diet anything is possible.
If you want to compare your hight and weight with the 2012 olympians you can at www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19050139 . Your Olympic Athlete Body Match.