The Influence of Height In Olympic Sports Peformance

I hope at least a few people were watching the Olympic this Summer because they fascinate me because it just shows us how the human body can be slowly transformed to continue to brake past its previous limitations. Every 4 years records that might have been set before in the last Olympics meet are shattered by the newer, more improved athletes.

I really enjoy watching 4 main events, basketball, swimming, volleyball, and track. Oddly, height is very important in at least 2 of the 4 events I watch. I don’t think I need to explain the importance of having height in basketball since I have already talked about the issue and will eventually get back to the subject eventually, but volleyball might be a subject and sport that is less well known than basketball, at least to the main US public. To not bore one with the details, I will just say that in volleyball, having height is just as important as in basketball. There are 5 main positions in volleyball.

1. Setters

2. Liberos

3. Middle blockers (aka Middle hitters)

4. Outside Hitters (aka Left side hitters)

5. Opposite Hitters (aka Right side hitters)

Apparently in the collegiate sports level, there are actual height requirements for each position as well as jump height requirements. Generally, the middle hitter/ blocker is supposed to be the tallest person in each team’s court side which for women is at least 6’0″ for Tier 1 and for men is it 6′ 7″ for Tier 1. For a more detailed list of height requirements for women, click HERE and for men click HERE..

With track, the events and sports is slightly different. Sprinters and marathon runners have historically been average in height. I would like to post an excerpt from Slate Magazine which got into explaining why the old science said that too tall individuals don’t win in certain events in track like the Sprint or Running. The person they referred to is the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Gold Medalist Usain Bolt who won the 100 meter sprint at an astounding height of 6′ 5″. You can find the source of the excerpt HERE.

“” Traditionally, height has been seen as a detriment to sprinting. The formula for speed is stride length times stride rate. If the longest legs always won the race, then Yao Ming would have the world record in the 100, and lions wouldn’t eat giraffes. Gangly guys, the thinking has always gone, don’t win short races because they can’t master the smooth form required to generate rapid leg turnover. Sprinters are supposed to be compact and muscular: Think Ben Johnson or Ato Boldon.

Big guys have physics working against them. According to the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, “[T]he acceleration of the body is proportional to the force produced but inversely proportional to the body mass, according to Newton’s second law. … This implies an inverse relationship between height and performance in disciplines such as sprint running.” In other words, it’s hard to produce enough power to overcome the drag of a big body. Usain Bolt, science tells us, is a top-heavy minivan racing against a field full of Suzuki Hayabusas.

That Journal of Sports Science & Medicine study, which may now need to be rewritten, found that world champion sprinters ranged between 5-foot-9 at the low end to 6-foot-3 at the absolute max. (Unlike distance runners, sprinters do need to be big and strong enough to generate explosive speed. That’s why 5-foot-9 has traditionally been the minimum height, whereas the elite distance runner Haile Gebrselassie is a mere 5-foot-3.) That range covers all the recent gold medalists, from Maurice Greene to Linford Christie. But not Usain Bolt.

Yet on Saturday night, the tall guy ran away from his classically designed competitors , winning by such a wide margin that he had time to wing out his arms, pound his heart … and still set a world record. If he stays healthy, Bolt could not only lower the mark to a science-fiction-y 9.6 seconds; he could change the look of future sprinters. He is a hybrid never before seen in track and field: a spidery giant whose legs generate the propulsive power of a cannonball-thighed running back.

When Bolt first took up track, he suffered from tall man’s maladies. For one thing, he ran as if he were wearing seven-league boots. His coach, Glen Mills, sped him up by shortening his stride. “Biomechanically, his body placement was not ideal for sprinting,” Mills told the Jamaica Gleaner. “His head was back, his shoulders were well behind his center of gravity, this resulted in him spending too much time in the air and over-striding.” Now, Mills says, “his length of stride is compatible with his height. One of the reasons he has such a long but efficient stride is because he lifts his knees so well.”

Good news for tall sprinters of the future: Bolt and Mills have developed the ideal gait for a 6-foot-5 runner. It allows Bolt to use his size as a motor rather than a brake. Still, he doesn’t have a classic sprinter’s carriage. In the 100, he sometimes looks rickety, wobbling back and forth on the track; a less-coordinated athlete with the same dimensions might topple over as he bounds down the straightaway. Sometimes, he still lifts himself too high in the air, especially on the turn in the 200 meters. (It’s hard to see how that flaw will keep him from winning a second gold medal, though.)

So we come to swimming. Swimming is another sport where people who are on the tall side have an advantage. The most famous swimmer in the world right now Michael Phelps is 6′ 4″. His teammates of the US National Swim Team for the 4×100 Medley Relay (which they won yesterday) are Branden Hansen (6′ 0″), Nathan Adrian (6′ 6″), and Matt Grevers (6′ 8″) . His teammates of the 4×100 Freestyle (got 2nd place) are Cullen Jones (6′ 5″), Ryan Lochte (6′ 2″), and Nathan Adrian (6′ 6″).

The average of of these guys is clearly at least 1 standard deviation away from the national average of 18-30 year old men. So the question is to ask whether swimming will let us grow taller, or is it that we become great swimmers because of being originally tall. There has been many articles claiming that swimming will improve one’s height because the buoyancy of the water and the horizontal movement of the body towards the vertical push of gravity allows the inter-vertebrate disks to decompress and expand thus increasing height. In theory, the science does sound reasonable but is the correlation between increased height and swimming strong enough to state a claim that “you can grow taller through swimmin?” Well, I am not aware of any scientific studies on the subject so the matter is still in the air.

One interesting part of my personality is that I believe in taking action first and often don’t ask for permission to try something. I believe in trying everything at least once as long as it is not potentially harmful to me. My philosophy is then since there is no science or study saying that swimming does not help with increase height, why not go ahead and try swimming and see if it has any affect on one’s overal height. Even if the height increase never comes, the other benefits in terms of health are too enormous to name so stick with the exercise.

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