5 Factors That Affect Olympic Performance

Michael Phelps crushed the competition at the 2008 Beijing games. But how? See more Olympic pictures.
Photo courtesy © IOC/Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Sweat dripping off the forehead, water cascading from the body, legs aching after the exertion. All may occur during the sort of intense, physical toils Olympians undergo to prepare for their events. Plus, do we even need to mention the multiple daily workouts, diet scrutiny and absurdly early wakeups? And yet, years of hard training can prove itself in a window of mere seconds, mere inches or mere pounds, depending on the event.

But many Olympic athletes have an edge over the rest of us, and over some of their competition, too. That's because a lot of factors can influence an athlete's success -- some inborn, some acquired. Take Michael Phelps. There's been a lot of speculation about how he managed to win an unprecedented eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing games. Some argue it was because of physical factors like his crazy wingspan; Phelps' arms reach 80 inches (203 centimeters) while his body measures only 76 inches (193 centimeters) in height [source: Hadhazy]. But others think it's purely a matter of relentless training and skill refinement.

In this list, we'll take a look at these aspects and some of the other ones that can affect an Olympian on the quest for gold. Ready, set, go!

The Anatomy of an Athlete

In the Olympics, you'll see everything from tiny gymnasts all the way to brawny, barrel-chested weightlifters; these competitors run the gamut of body types. So, the first factor that can affect athletes' prowess is their basic anatomy. Anthropometrics (the study of the human body's measurements) can help us study how this plays out.

Anthropometric factors can include an athlete's height, weight, body mass index and muscle mass. As you've no doubt noticed, different body types may lend themselves to different sports. A large, tall man, for example, could be ideal for sumo. Solid, although shorter, may mean you've got a wrestler in the making. Tall, but slender, could suggest he's ideal for volleyball. Small and thin might make for a good marathoner.

As for female athletes, shorter and skinnier women often appear on the gymnast mats. Shorter yet stockier women can be great on the wrestling mats. Tall, sinuous females may make for good swimmers, while taller and stockier females may excel at athletics, such as the hammer throw.

Now, of course, it's not a one-size-fits-all equation -- plenty of Olympians break the mold, and morphology is certain not a cut-and-dry factor -- but choosing a sport that complements your basic anatomy never hurts.

The Heart of a Contender

Other crucial physical characteristics matter, too, aside from basic body measurements. A gymnast looking to win gold on the balance beam obviously must have excellent balance, and that comes from having an exceptional inner ear. Top-notch tennis players must have extraordinary eyesight to keep track of the ball whizzing back and forth across the court. In most cases, runners can't easily swap between distance running and sprinting. Sprinters tend to have more fast-twitch fibers in their muscles.

Athletes' bodily processes also matter. For example, how efficiently do their bodies use oxygen? Lots of countries have training facilities that mimic high-altitude conditions to prepare their competitors for adverse, low-oxygen settings. Events at the Mexico City 1968 summer games were held at an altitude of more than 7,500 feet (or about 2,300 meters), and it quickly became apparent that many of the athletes in attendance were suffering from the thinner atmosphere at such an elevation. However, if an event had a short duration, such as sprinting, jumping, throwing or weightlifting, then the altitude proved advantageous. But for athletes whose events required a lengthy (more than about two minutes) performance, such as long-distance running, swimming or cycling, then it wasn't helpful [source: Olympics.org].

The Garb of a Champion
Donovan Bailey of Canada, Frank Fredericks of Namibia and Ato Bolden of Trinidad and Tobago took gold, silver and bronze respectively at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.
Donovan Bailey of Canada, Frank Fredericks of Namibia and Ato Bolden of Trinidad and Tobago took gold, silver and bronze respectively at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.
Photo courtesy © IOC/Bongarts/Getty Images

Whether it's swimmers or sprinters, the svelter the better. Both types of athletes are looking to greatly increase their forward propulsion so they can move as quickly as possible. And certain types of gear help them accomplish this. No ruffled bathing suits or frilly shirts in sight on the track or in the pool.

It's a concept known as hydrodynamics in the case of swimmers. Some factors of hydrodynamics can be improved by technology. There's buoyancy, which is how well an object stays above water. It's ideal for swimmers to find their center of buoyancy (usually around the sternum) in order to reduce drag and establish balance [source: Georgia State University]. And speaking of drag, it's created by friction with the water, and it can really slow swimmers down, fighting against their forward velocity.

Being both buoyant and sleek is the way to go if you want to win a gold. Although banned since 2010, for a time swimmers were allowed to wear swimsuits made of polyurethane. These waterproof swimsuits improved buoyancy by trapping in air bubbles, and their smooth surface helped streamline swimmers to reduce drag. Now swimmers are ordered to use only permeable textile swimsuits.

The Eye of the Tiger

The path to Olympic gold isn't just in the physical training. There's a large mental component, too. Think about slalom racers skiing down a mountainside. They're flying along at extremely high speeds (around 80 miles per hour/130 kilometers per hour or more), aiming to successfully pass through every gate. It's critical to remember where each of those gates is positioned [source: Berliner].

Or consider bobsledders. They absolutely need to know where those turns are. A good memory can mean a second, or even a tenth of a second, saved. It doesn't sound like much, but at this level of competition, it can be the difference between gold and bronze, or a place off the podium altogether.

It's not just memory. Psychological preparation is imperative as well. Olympians need to be in the zone if they want to cross the finish line first. During a competition, athletes often have to give the reins over to their bodies -- trusting in their training and in themselves. The time for analysis is over. The time to perform is now. They need to clear their minds and banish any feelings of doubt or fear.

Strong personal motivation is also critical; without that drive, many promising athletes wouldn't attain their top potential. And then there's the self-discipline. Olympic-level athletes must adhere to strict lifestyle regimens that many would consider austere, even brutal, in order to succeed.

The Illegal Edge of Doping

We'd never endorse doping, but leaving it off this list would be remiss. It's a serious offense that violates the World Anti-Doping Code, but it does occur. Nearly all major sports organizations and a large number of nations accept the code as standard [source: WADA].

Athletes were first tested for doping at the 1968 Mexico City games, and the system has evolved since then. Nowadays the International Testing Standard, as determined by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), dictates the process run like this: Blood or urine samples are collected at times that optimize the detection of doping. Athletes don't get advanced notice. If they refuse to provide a sample, in almost all situations, it's considered a violation of the code. If they fail to be available for a sample, in certain cases they can be allowed three such failures in an 18-month period before they are deemed to be in violation. Evading a test or tampering with a sample also results in violation as does, of course, being proven to have been doping. Athletes are required to remain with the doping control officer (or chaperone) at all times until a sample is provided.

Some athletes are subject to random testing, others are targeted. An athlete might be targeted for several reasons, like an atypical physique, behavioral oddities or unexpected withdrawal from a competition.

The prohibited substance list is divided into three sections: items that are always prohibited, only during competition or only in particular sports. The list reads like a chemistry book, but some of the generalized examples of universally prohibited items are anabolic androgenic steroids, growth hormones, aromatase inhibitors and masking agents such as diuretics.

Many of the same are repeated on the prohibited in-competition list with a few notable additions. Stimulants such as cocaine, methamphetamine, adrenaline, ephedrine and strychnine show up, as well as narcotics such as morphine, oxycodone, methadone and cannabinoids.

All in all, the code is very long and complex. So if athletes are looking for a chemical way to improve their performance without breaking any rules, they'd better practice their legalese as well as their sport.


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Jessika Toothman, Staff Writer
Jessika Toothman, Staff Writer

Author's Note: 5 Factors That Affect Olympic Performance

This article was cool to write because it looked into so many facets of what it takes to succeed as an Olympian. I was also fascinated delving into the International Standard for Testing. You hear about this athlete or that athlete testing positive, but the coverage rarely gives details on how the process works. The document runs for 92 pages and is incredibly definitive, specifying aspects such as what constitutes a violation, how the selection process should proceed, how the testing process should proceed and how the appeals process should unfold. I was also a little amazed that any athletes attempt to dope. It's understandable to want to do anything that will give you an edge, but with this system in place, if you get caught, all your glory comes crashing down.

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