Built to Win Bodies: There are sound genetic and physiological reasons why female gymnists are tiny, sprinters are muscular, weightlifters bulky and swimmers tall

OLYMPIC Outtakes

July 30, 1996|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

A year or so after Florence Griffith Joyner won two gold medals as a sprinter at the 1988 Olympics, she announced that she was now going to train as a marathon runner.

Sports physiologists around the world laughed.

"She probably could run a marathon," says Dr. Bill Howard, head of the Sports Medicine Center at Union Memorial Hospital, "but she'd finish an hour behind the winner."

It's not that Flo-Jo was not a splendid athlete. It's just that God gave her the body of a world-class sprinter, not a marathoner.

As any observer of the Atlanta Games has noticed, God has given athletes many different body types, but he arranges them by sport. Woman gymnasts tend to be tiny with low centers of gravity. Weightlifters tend to be bulky with short arms. Swimmers are tall with long arms and big hands and feet. None of this is a coincidence. Each sport requires specific physical characteristics from its best performers. Viewed this way, the Olympics can be seen as an exhibit on natural selection.

"Sometimes I wonder if the athlete picks the sport or the sport picks the athlete," says Dr. Joseph Martire, one of the founders of Union Memorial Hospital's Sports Medicine Center.

A champion athlete, of course, is the sum of so many different ingredients -- psychological makeup, technique, diet, training, coaching, opportunity. But genetics is the place where possibility begins. Medical science, biomechanics and biochemistry have now arrived at a point where a physical examination of a potential athlete could predict what the best sports would be for that athlete and what levels of performance might be possible. Some countries, Romania and China, for example, do just that in selecting and training some of their athletes.

"It's all very interesting, isn't it?" says Dr. Leigh Ann Curl, assistant director of the sports medicine clinic at Johns Hopkins University. "But it's scary, too, when you think that you could genetically select people for different sports. It reminds you of the old Eastern bloc countries."

Competitive balance

Perhaps we haven't gotten that far yet, although, as Martire says, coaches are well aware of what works and what doesn't in their sports. "If you're 5 foot 11 inches, Bela Karolyi will take one look at you and say, 'Hey, you should pick a different sport.' "

Karolyi's sport, women's gymnastics, may be one of the most unforgiving in terms of physical characteristics.

"Look at the Romanians and the Chinese," says Neil McDonald, an athletic trainer at Union Memorial. "You won't find three inches difference in height or five pounds in weight."

The equipment and the routines in women's gymnastics necessitate small size. The women gymnasts are the smallest at the Games, often under five feet tall and less than 90 pounds. A taller woman would have a harder time navigating between, around and underneath the uneven bars. A bigger woman would have more difficulty staying in bounds during the floor program. A heavier woman would have a harder time keeping her balance on the beam or completing somersaults in a confined area.

The premium on small size in women's gymnastics is the reason ages are so low. The entire U.S. squad at the Olympics this year was under 20. Dominique Moceanu is just 14. Age, or more to the point, growth, is as welcome to female gymnasts as a stress fracture. When a woman passes through puberty, she gains body fat. She develops breasts, hips, more pronounced buttocks. None of that extra fat is advantageous in a sport in which one must whip and spin through the air. It's just extra weight that has to be lugged around.

Unfortunately, as the New England Journal of Medicine reported last week, too many elite gymnasts respond to the demands of their sport by trying to retard their bodies' natural development. Many suffer from eating disorders, which can prevent the start of menstruation. A delay in menstruation can lead to osteoporosis, which some believe contributes to gymnastics' especially high injury rate.

Although male gymnasts also tend to be short, the equipment on which they perform places different physical requirements on them than on woman. In men's gymnastics, the rings and the pommel require extraordinary upper body strength, which means heavily muscled arms and abdomens.

The importance of strength helps explain why top male gymnasts are older than their female counterparts. Because of testosterone, men continue to develop muscle mass deep into their twenties and beyond. They keep getting stronger. Women generally cannot generate more muscle mass. In terms of strength, they peak at a much earlier age.

A twitch in time

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