Why Winning Athletes Are Getting Bigger

Jul 17, 2009 By Richard Merritt
Pictured are Jordan Charles, left, and Adrian Bejan. Credit: Duke University Photography

While watching swimmers line up during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, former Olympic swimmer and NBC Sports commentator Rowdy Gaines quipped that swimmers keep getting bigger, with the shortest one in the current race towering over the average spectator.

What may have been seen as an off-hand remark turns out to illustrate a trend in human development -- elite athletes are getting bigger and bigger.

What Gaines did not know was that a new theory by Duke University engineers has indeed showed that not only have Olympic swimmers and sprinters gotten bigger and faster over the past 100 years, but they have grown at a much faster rate than the normal population.

Futhermore, the researchers said, this pattern of growth can be predicted by the constructal theory, a Duke-inspired theory of design in nature that explains such diverse phenomena as river basin formation and the capillary structure of tree branches and roots.

In a new analysis, Jordan Charles, an engineering student who graduated this spring, collected the heights and weights of the fastest swimmers (100 meters) and sprinters (100 meters) for world record winners since 1900. He then correlated the size growth of these athletes with their winning times.

"The trends revealed by our analysis suggest that speed records will continue to be dominated by heavier and taller athletes," said Charles, who worked with senior author Adrian Bejan, engineering professor who came up with the constructal theory 13 years ago. The results of their analysis were published online in the . "We believe that this is due to the constructal rules of animal locomotion and not the contemporary increase in the average size of humans."

Specifically, while the average human has gained about 1.9 inches in height since 1900, Charles' research showed that the fastest swimmers have grown 4.5 inches and the swiftest runners have grown 6.4 inches.

The theoretical rules of animal locomotion generally state that larger animals should move faster than smaller animals. In his contructal theory, Bejan linked all three forms of animal locomotion -- running, swimming and flying. Bejan argues that the three forms of locomotion involve two basic forces: lifting weight vertically and overcoming drag horizontally. Therefore, they can be described by the same mathematical formulas. (http://www.pratt.duke.edu/news/?id=1692)

Using these insights, the researchers can predict running speeds during the Greek or Roman empires, for example. In those days, obviously, time was not kept.

"In antiquity, body weights were roughly 70 percent less than they are today," Charles said. "Using our theory, a 100-meter dash that is won in 13 seconds would have taken about 14 seconds back then."

Charles, a varsity breaststroke swimmer during his time at Duke, said this new way of looking at locomotion and size validates a particular practice in swim training, though for a different reason. Swimmers are urged by their coaches to raise their body as far as they can out of the water with each stroke as a means of increasing their speed.

"It was thought that the swimmer would experience less friction drag in the air than in the water," Charles said. "However, when the body is higher above the water, it falls faster and more forward when it hits the water. The larger wave that occurs is faster and propels the body forward. A larger swimmer would get a heightened effect. Right advice, wrong reason."

In an almost whimsical corollary, the authors suggest that if athletes of all sizes are to compete in these kinds of events, weight classes might be needed.

"In the future, the fastest athletes can be predicted to be heavier and taller," Bejan said. "If the winners' podium is to include athletes of all sizes, then speed competitions might have to be divided into weight categories. Larger athletes lift, push and punch harder than smaller athletes, and this led to the establishment of weight classes in certain sports, like boxing, wrestling or weight-lifting.

Source: Duke University (news : web)

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User comments : 7

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finitesolutions
3 / 5 (2) Jul 17, 2009
Bigger people means also bigger problems: bigger houses, bigger planes, more food, bigger paychecks ...The plenty planet is yet to be discovered.
fuzz54
3 / 5 (2) Jul 17, 2009
Try to comment about something on topic with this article if you can manage that.
defunctdiety
1 / 5 (1) Jul 17, 2009
I wonder how big of a role the advent of the science of nutrition, and professional athleticism in general (being able to devote your life and life-style to a specific sport), plays in this trend as well...

the authors suggest that if athletes of all sizes are to compete in these kinds of events, weight classes might be needed
...
if the winners' podium is to include athletes of all sizes


This is ridiculous, combat sports are intended to be competitions of skill, so you want to eliminate size as a factor because size nullifies those type of skill-sets so quickly.

But if you're holding a competition to determine the absolute fastest runner and swimmer, farthest jumper, etc. (pure athleticism) in the world, then size, if it makes you the better athlete, should not be "taken" from you. The quality of skill-sets in these competitions, form, breathing, etc. are already independent of size, if you're built better than another athlete for a given sport then you are the better athlete.
PinkElephant
not rated yet Jul 17, 2009
I've come to the conclusion that professional athletics is little more than a glorified dog show. As you get up to the Olympic level, you're no longer differentiating based on the amount of effort or dedication that people put into their sports. All you're doing, is selecting the individual with the optimal genetics. This is fundamentally unfair to all who weren't so blessed at birth, and furthermore it faintly smacks of eugenics. Ever since I came to this realization, I've lost all interest and even developed a mild aversion to the big sports culture.
just_doug
not rated yet Jul 18, 2009
Given the amount of it in use in even high school sports i'm surprised there's no mention of HGH.
defunctdiety
not rated yet Jul 20, 2009
...professional athletics is little more than a glorified dog show.


While that's a fairly accurate description, I don't think that decreases the value of pure sport competition. Man (and all biotic life) is competitive by nature but, unlike most life, we have the sophistication to find forms of competition that don't involve the loser dieing (many beyond sport). I think that's glorious and indeed that competition (in all forms) is glorious.

...you're no longer differentiating based on the amount of effort or dedication that people put into their sports. All you're doing, is selecting the individual with the optimal genetics.


I will assume you're not trying to say that people at the top of their discipline are only there because of their genes and that they don't have to put in extreme levels of effort and dedication into their training. Obviously that's idiotic, and I don't think you're an idiot.

So what you're saying is essentially that athletes should just get "an A for effort"? That society should reward trying, even if you do not excel because of this effort? What particular value does this effort or dedication have if it does not make you, at the least, competitive at that discipline? I say absolutely zero, it just shows an inability to deal with reality (that you should try something else). Parents should reward trying, so that their kid isn't a defeatist, but life rewards results and competitive sports is a valuable way to demonstrate this reality young. You are never going to level the playing field for everyone short of putting masks over the heads of the beautiful and weights on the limbs of the strong, and little buzzing devices in the ears of the intelligent...

And if in theory all that separates any given number of athletes is their genetics, then so be it. All are not created equal in every regard, this is a fundamental fact of life, and not being able to accept that probably indicates some sort of stunted emotional development.

This is fundamentally unfair to all who weren't so blessed at birth, and furthermore it faintly smacks of eugenics.


We are all the same species, we all have the same potential for any given gene expression. Their are all types of phenotypes in all races. No one race is made up of individuals that are all better at something than all the individuals of another race. That's as fair as it gets. And it's eugenics only if you believe that only the champions of any given sport should be allowed to reproduce. We're talking about freaking sport here.
PinkElephant
not rated yet Jul 20, 2009
So what you're saying is essentially that athletes should just get "an A for effort"


In fact, I don't think athletes should get anything at all. If they like doing what they do (i.e. they derive pleasure from the process), then that's reward enough. In fact, that was the original basis for athletics long before organized/commercialized mega-sports franchises were created. There's no rational reason for everyone else to be fawning over them. There are, of course, plenty of irrational reasons. IMHO

What particular value does this effort or dedication have if it does not make you, at the least, competitive at that discipline? I say absolutely zero, it just shows an inability to deal with reality (that you should try something else).


Well, here you have an interesting little gray area. Suppose a given athlete is a State champion -- that is, better than anyone else in his/her neighborhood. But alas, despite his/her life-long dedication, sweat, sacrifice, etc. and so on, he/she simply cannot make the cut for the Olympic team. Just don't have quite the perfect skeletal structure, or the requisite sky-high count of muscle fibers, or the sufficiently branched circulatory system, or the extra couple of mitochondria per cell. What have we here, then: a worthless loser incapable of dealing with reality? Or perhaps to make it even more interesting, let's lay off the State champion and discuss the fourth-place County runner-up...

And if in theory all that separates any given number of athletes is their genetics, then so be it.


And there goes the whole "blood/sweat/tears" argument. Truth is, many sacrifice heavily and some sacrifice even more than the ultimate winners. Yet we choose to laud exclusively the winners for their "accomplishments" -- as if somehow they deserve it more through something of their own doing.

All are not created equal in every regard, this is a fundamental fact of life, and not being able to accept that probably indicates some sort of stunted emotional development.


Accepting is one thing. Fawning over and exalting, is something altogether darker and more than a little disturbing, at least to me.

And it's eugenics only if you believe that only the champions of any given sport should be allowed to reproduce. We're talking about freaking sport here.


Well, perhaps it might have been so for as long as selective breeding was the only way to evolve a genome. With science advancing rapidly, the pressure is on to balance the odds at a genetic level, which threatens homogenization of the gene pool, which in turn threatens extinction of the very race that tried to make itself perfect in its own image.

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