A diversity of shapes and speeds at the Rome marathon a few years ago. All athletes, in a way.
Time for a story. (Isn’t it always?)
Once upon a time, in pretty much all lands on this planet called Earth, the thinking of sports federations and elite coaches was that an Olympic athlete had to be of average height and build, with lean bone and muscle mass providing a streamlined body type.
For all Olympic sports.
Such athletes were selected and tested early, then subjected to years of grueling training. Only a very small portion of even such “ideal” athletes rose to the top of each sport and were deemed good enough to represent their respective countries against the rest of the world. (The story does not say what happened to those who did not rise to the top, but rumour has it that they started hating sports, and took up knitting instead.)
This had come about because there was a clear picture of the “ideal” human shape that had endured to some extent since the time of the original Olympic games in Greece. But with more clothing. No doubt the statues of antiquity, and later re-born in the Renaissance, had helped solidify such an image of the perfect athlete.
Allied to that image was the notion, very much born of religious thought, that only through a lot of hard work and pain could the most gains be made in training. Fierce competition, even among teammates, was seen as the way to build stronger individuals.
Thus many countries went about, and generations of kids, teenagers, and young adults went about their training. Only a very small portion of all those who started in such programs ever made it, and they won medals and set world records.
But this story is not about world records and Olympic medals. It is about how athletes were selected and prepared to compete.
It all changed, of course, when atypical athletes started winning medals and breaking world records. This came about because many countries simply did not have athletes with the expected, “ideal” body type. They were not expected to win, yet there they were, running faster, jumping higher, lifting heavier than the rest.
Suddenly, coaches caught on to what biologists must have realized much earlier: That there might be something about the specific genetic make-up of an individual that might make them better athletes at SOME sport in particular.
Nowadays, we fully understand that notion, and athletes are not expected to look the same across all sports. That explains why we see a lot of Kenyans and Ethiopians win marathons, and tiny little guys and gals ride race horses. Volleyball players are tall and somewhat lanky; ping-pong players somewhat short but extremely quick.
You get the picture. We each have specific genetic variations that make us more or less good at some activities or sports. Some are very visible, others not.
As the eminent (running coach) Jack Daniels pointed out in a seminar I attended a few years ago, you would not expect Shaquille O’neal and Mary Lou Retton to perform at an elite level at each-other’s respective sports. (The reference to those athletes provides an idea of the age of Jack Daniels, and of the attendees, not of the date of the seminar.)
Big differences are expected, for instance, between a basketball player and a gold medal winning gymnast. (Just to be clear, for those of a different age…) Mary Lou could not possibly dunk a ball, and Shaquille might very well break the asymmetric bars. Hence athletes are largely selected based on their body types nowadays.
Tragically, what hasn’t changed (yet) is the notion that training has to be uniformly hard and painful for everyone. That is why we see PE programs in schools that are still based on (unfriendly) competition and pitting everyone against each other to be the best, or to meet some specific standards of fitness arbitrarily defined by someone.
That’s in large part been identified as the prime culprit for turning the vast majority of people away from doing sports on a regular basis. If all that seems to matter is winning, and there can only be one winner, that means there are a lot of losers. And nobody likes being a loser.
So it starts by hating PE, then it becomes hating sports. Except for those you can watch while drinking beer, and even then, it is watching games, not playing.
Watching is definitely not the same as doing.
At the same time, the understanding that we are all different has been taken much too far: Nowadays, a lot of folks think that they are simply not athletic, not meant to do sports. There are winners, who are jocks, who are meant to do sports, and then there’s the rest of us who should not do sports. Who cannot do sports.
Given the premises of differences between individuals and of personally hating sports, it is understandable that many reached the (erroneous) conclusion that they are not meant to move.
But the reasoning is incorrect, and one of the premises is false.
The facts, based on biology, are all pointing in the direction of our bodies being meant to move. Needing to move. Regularly.
Hating sports and exercise is a learned behaviour; it can be unlearned, replaced by something better.
We are all different, but even in our visible (and invisible differences), we are more alike than not.
The story time being over, I’ll conclude this post by pointing out the ways in which we are alike, and those in which we differ. And I’ll come back some other time to the fascinating topic of how to learn to like exercise.
Ways in which we are all alike: Basic morphology and physiology
The marvelous machinery of life.
- We all have the same number of limbs, fingers, heads, internal organs (types and numbers), etc., and they all are built according to the same plan. (Yes, I know, there are accidents of biology, but the basic plan before those accidents is the same.)
- We all have muscles connected to bones in order to makes us move; those muscles all work according to the same principles, and allow sensibly the same movements to be performed by everyone.
- We use carbohydrates, lipids, and to a lesser extent proteins, to generate the energy that allows our cells to function. Including muscle cells, which are used to move our bodies. More specifically, there are fast and slow ways of generating that energy, and although they vary in relative terms, they are all present in all of us.
- We all obtain such nutrients from eating; our digestive system, comprised as it is of our own guts and the microbiome therein, functions fundamentally the same way in all of us. Besides nutrients, we need water and oxygen (not too much) for our metabolism to operate.
- We need to move; for our bodies to be healthy, we need to move. The stress imposed on our bones, muscles, and internal organs by intense activity is what keeps bones strong, muscles large(-ish), and organs performing their normal functions. Including digestion and waste disposal.
- All of our bodies respond to exercise (or to a lack thereof). If you exercise regularly, the body changes to adapt to the exercise, and the organs and energy systems hum along. If you don’t exercise, the body “relaxes” and things start to breakdown, fat reserves accumulate, digestion is slower and we get constipated, etc.
That’s just how our bodies work. We are all very much alike.
Ways in which we differ: The details of performance
Because of the details of how each of us is shaped (tall or short, thick-boned or thinner, etc.) and how cells function physiologically, there are aspects of performance in which we differ. Specifically:
So many sports, so many choices…
- How much endurance we have (mostly due to differences in energy systems at the cellular level, though that’s trainable to a great extent, perhaps the most of all aspects of performance)
- How fast we can be (also highly trainable, but limits imposed by physiology exist in each of us, also at the cellular level in muscles)
How strong our muscles can be (small differences there)
- How big our muscles can become (bigger differences there)
- How flexible we can be (muscles, ligaments, but also joint movement; we can’t all be circus performers!)
- How coordinated we can be (agility, efficiency, also technically trainable to a great extent)
- How a wide range of our senses perform (eyesight, hearing, smell, etc.) and how efficiently our brains put all of that together
Taken together, and in the right combinations, the accumulation of small differences is what, along with adequate training, makes top performing athletes.
So, while it remains true that there can only be one winner in each discipline, and that at the top level (Olympics, for instance), only a small portion of the population is equipped to truly compete, we all have the potential to take enjoyment in some physical activity. And we may even do pretty well, locally or within the cohort of people our own age.
What matters most, however, is that we are all alike in fundamental ways. We all need to move, a lot, to keep our one and only body functioning optimally for a long time.
It’s up to us to figure-out what makes us enjoy it the most.
The author, laughing at a well-deserved muscle cramp, after having completed an iron-distance triathlon.
For an interesting discussion of physiological differences in triathletes, see the recently published book Triathlon Science by Joe Friel and Jim Vance.
Pictures from Pixabay and the author.