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Perfect Physiques

With Wade Goodwyn in for Tom Ashbrook.

Are the Olympics open to only those born with perfect physiques?  Can you win gold without Missy Franklin’s wingspan or Usain Bolt’s height?

Chinese gymnast Sui Lu performs on the balance beam during the Artistic Gymnastic women's qualifications at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, July 29, 2012, in London. (AP)

Chinese gymnast Sui Lu performs on the balance beam during the Artistic Gymnastic women’s qualifications at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, July 29, 2012, in London. (AP)

If only you’d stuck with your training and been more careful with your diet, if things had been just a little different that could have been you marching into the Olympic stadium, fans taking your picture and waving the flag.  Right?   Well maybe not.

The Games at the 30th Olympiad contain some of the most amazing physical specimens ever seen.

This hour, On Point:  It wouldn’t matter how hard you worked, without the right genes, you don’t have a chance.  Nature vs. nurture in the creation of an Olympic athlete.

-Wade Goodwyn


Jeff Kofman, ABC News correspondent in London.

Adrian Bejan, professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University. Author of Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization.

Robert Chapman, associate director for sports science and medicine for U.S. Track and Field.

Sheldon Blockburger, assistant Track and Field coach at the University of Arizona. A former Decathlete who has been coaching for over 20 years, and this year trained Olympic High Jumper Brigetta Barrett, who will be competing starting next Thursday, August 9th.

From The Reading List

BBC “Olympic athletes come in all shapes and sizes, from the lithe limbs of Japan’s Asuka Teramoto to the gargantuan frame of China’s Zhaoxu Zhang. But how do you measure up in comparison? Try our app below and find out. Why not then share your results with your friends?”

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  • Wm. James from Missouri

    What an incredible picture !

  • LinP

    Usain Bolt is a strange example to use. By all measure (pun intended) he is way TOO tall and too bulky to be a good runner, never mind a world-class sprinter. His height and girth “should” be a deterrent for him shooting out of the block at the start, and he lifts himself too high on turns. While there are exceptions, and Bolt is surely one of them, world-class running from sprinting to the marathon, is the domain of the short, the light, the fleet.

    The pool and the volleyball court, however, is where you find athletes who are Bolt’s height or greater. Backstroker Matt Grevers, OTOH, is 6-feet 8.5, which is a big advantage for a swimmer who can build on great natural talent.

    • http://twitter.com/TweeterSmart b smart

      your comment should be restricted to sprinting the current 800m world record holder is 6′ 3″. 

    • Adks12020

      Sorry but that isn’t true.  There are many runners over 6′ tall, including sprinters, and most sprinters are extremely muscular, many more so than Bolt.  Sprinters rely on power and speed so most have significant weight training routines.  It isn’t surprising to have a 5’10″ sprinter weight 195-200 lbs.  If not for an extreme amount of muscle that person would be fat. Runners come in all sizes. There’s no such thing as a perfect running build. 

      Bolt does have a pretty bad start but he is able to overcome that with the fact that his stride is substantially longer than most of the other sprinters; on top of that his leg turnover is just as fast so every step he takes he pulls away from the other competitors a few feet.

      • LinP

         Yes, there are “many runners” but not the majority. Seriously, you can find outliers anywhere.

        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.


  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    There are a number of 5 ft tall female gymnasts that look like male weight lifters from behind: huge lats. They have thick necks like football players. They have no fat to store estrogen in… what does that do to their physiological development aside from their musculature?

    • Adks12020

      It definitely seems to stunt their feminine development however as soon as they stop competing they generally develop very quickly.  I had a couple female friends that competed in gymnastics until 16 or 17.  They had virtually no breasts or hips until they stopped competing and then in the next year they both suddenly had relatively large breasts and noticeable hips. They both had wide shoulders and neck muscles which faded when they stopped competing and training.  THey continued to run and work out but the gymnastic specific muscles faded.

  • AC

    “Every male Olympic power athlete tested carries at least one copy of the 577R gene… [3 options: 1] Do you want the Olympics to be a showcase for really hard working mutants? [2] Why don’t we play it like golf or sailing? Because you have one and you don’t have one, I’ll give you a 10 second head-start. [3] Because this is a naturally occurring gene and… you didn’t pick the right parents, you have the right to upgrade.”
    from “Will Our Children be a Different Species” talk by Juan Enriquez

    emphasis on the ‘every’, this is very interesting to me…

    • http://twitter.com/TweeterSmart b smart

      this gene would only be significant if you test every male not in the Olympics and they failed to have that gene.
      i’m sure there are sub-Saharan african children with that gene dying of hunger who won’t be participating in any future olympic games 

      • AC

        sorry; i guess when taken out of context, it’s difficult to understand the point of the quote. The point is; it is a ‘varient’ of this particular gene (not to mention the billions of possible combo’s w/others or environmental factors etc, etc) and because designer babies are already here, he is suggesting you can upgrade and increase your chances fo this possible outcome (olympic power athlete) by choosing to have it included in your child…..

        (o, in case – don’t bother pointing out the ethical/moral issues, it is such a hot subject of debate that i enjoy listening too already)

      • AC

        actually it sounds like they’re kinda getting to the heart of the matter with the ‘nature vs. nuture’ discussion

  • http://twitter.com/TweeterSmart b smart

    everyone is born with a certain potential. some will have to work harder and some less hard to reach the same level and with that, some will never attain the zenith of possibility.

  • Hipolito27

    I look forward to hearing the and hope that they don’t overlook one of the greatest track athletes of all time – Michael Johnson. His mechanics and end results defied all convention and he wasn’t suppose to be as great as he was.

    • Adks12020

      No doubt about that.  Michael Johson had awful running form and really short legs (thus extremely short stride) for a 400 meter runner and yet he was one of the best ever.  He made his physique work for him.

  • rfra20

    In the end it boils down to physics.  If your body “layout” is optimized to for a certain activity you will simply have a physical advantage. Training and discipline (mental and physical) will then build on those natural traits.

  • Jemimah

    In fact, there are some fairly “normal” physiques in the Olympics, too. One of the American sychronized divers, Kelci Bryant, isn’t slyph-like in the least.  Misty May, the beach volleyball queen, six pack notwithstanding. looks pretty much like the rest of us. But those amazing gymnasts’ bodies are more and more extreme every 4 years!  The muscles on the male gymnasts arms are popeye-like knots and the girls look like more like the football players with their thick necks and cobra backs.  Don’t get me wrong, I am in complete awe of their ability, their dedication and their accomplishments, and their bodies will get less cartoonish when they move on to the next phase of their lives.  But I don’t know that we should be calling these “perfect.”  A nicely toned, healty form on a well-adjusted, happy person is, to my mind, what we should all strive for. 

    • TFRX

      Misty May, the beach volleyball queen, six pack notwithstanding. looks pretty much like the rest of us.

      “Looks”, maybe, but playing volleyball on sand at the Olympic level requires quite a set of thighs and calves, physique-wise, no matter their appearance.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Isn’t this true about every field?  Some have the ability to perform, while most don’t.  That’s life.

    • Gregg

      That’s very astute. Ability is one thing but being able to summon that ability when it counts is something else entirely. Physicality has nothing to do with that aspect. 

  • LinP

    Here’s an interesting piece from the blog “The Science of Sport.” Genes and Performances: Why Some Are More Equal Than Others


  • Scott B., Jamestown NY

    As NPR reported this morning, the “Jesse Owens” stature guy just whipped Bolt. So it’s not all “bigger is better”, sometimes it is the size of the fight in the dog and not the size if the dog in the fight.

    • Patrick M

      Exactly!  Yet Bolt’s loss to a shorter athlete was not mentioned at all!  

  • J__o__h__n

    How is throwing a game to get a more favorable route to the top illegal?  Unless it is specifically against a rule, I would think that is part of strategy. 

  • Scott B., Jamestown NY

    There’s some innate talent involved, too.   Some people just seem to have a natural ability that aids them in their sport, be it quicker reflexes, better musculature, greater flexibility, better spacial relations, etc.   It’s not all physiology, though that is a major factor.

    • TFRX

      Then there’s the mental factor, which is probably an entire show on its own.

      To the absurd example, Michael Jordan didn’t have reach or jumping ability or height advantages every other player he competed against.

  • jim

    i find it quite troubling to see your commentator alluding to doping on chinese swimmers.

    i don’t see US commentators criticizing American olympians for breaking records. but if it were to be a chinese athlete the criticism comes up without any appreciation to the possibility of actual world performance.

    you guys who criticize have no good sportsmanship. in other words you  guys are quite sore losers.

    remember, it is not always the raucous chant of USA, USA, USA… please show some grace.

    • HalfFast

      When you consider that she did the last 50 meters at a speed faster than the men’s winner (not sure if that’s his overall speed or his speed over the last 50 meters but in any case, somewhat well beyond anything normal by any female swimmer), it seems somewhat unlikely. Perhaps she is clean, however, it would have to be an extremely unlikely occurrence. Doping is one of many possible explanations.

      • answerfrog

         Given all the Olympic doping scandals — Ben Johnson, Marion Jones, etc. — incredible results are greeted with healthy skepticism.

    • Steve

      Not only was her final 50 meter speed incredibly fast, she beat her own previous personal best time by 5 seconds. Again, such a feat is virtually never seen, even at this level of competition.

      • TFRX

        Watching last night, one of the “swimnouncers” brought up similar improvement in top-level athletes (one named, but I forget who) at that age, over the space of a year.

  • Tncanoeguy

    In high school education it’s said that national merit scholars are born not made – like athletes.  

    • RolloMartins

      Who the heck says that? 

  • Patrick M

    I’m disappointed with this one-sided program.  How can you have a nature vs nurture discussion without including a sociologist?  And how can you talk about the complete domination of tall athletes without mentioning the sub-6 foot Yohan Blake’s recent win over Usain Bolt?  What happened to objective journalism?

    • heaviest Cat

      Objective journalism? Long gone form Public radio,patrick. Along with the public.

  • Libero

    These last two weeks have been for the most part unlistenable with this episode being the final straw. 

    I really don’t care what a great athlete the host thinks he had been nor do I think there’s a shed of responsibility let alone class that the accomplishments of a 16-year-old should be denigrated because the host and the commenters are intent on value judgements despite the teen having passed the drug test and despite her training in Australia with a non-Chinese staff. What is it with you people? By your train of logic, we should question every accomplishment of the US track and field team due to its long history of doping scandals.

    Also, this being the 21st century, inform your guest that East Asians prefer to be called either Chinese, Korean, Japanese or Asians rather than “orientals.”

    I cannot wait until Tom returns and before I’m dismissed as just another irrational, Chinese ultra-nationalist, I’m not Chinese.

    • answerfrog

      Cheating in sports is a fact, and fairly widespread. In our era, almost every athlete is suspect unless they hold up over the long term and remain “clean”.

      Phelps has 12+ years of passing every test and steadily performing.

      We’ll see if Ye does. Or if her skills “mysteriously” wither in the future knowing that she will be required extra testing. If she is that good, we’d expect her to be back and continue to perform, right?

      OTOH, Lance Armstrong now seems to have doped. At least there is a lot of suspicion if no smoking gun.

      Even IOC officials acknowledged that incredible performance warrants scrutiny. This is simply the age we live in, after decades of doping and cheating.

      • Libero

        It’s been days since the win and no one has offered evidence to back up the baseless accusations and aspersions you stop rationalizing your veiled bigotry and poor sportsmanship. As the 15-yr-old US swimmer proved tonight, people are capable of coming out of nowhere to blow away the field without having to suffer through baseless accusations and insinuations. 

        Congratulations to both of these awesome athletes.

        • answerfrog

           What you are engaging in is exactly a soft form of bigotry. Oh, she’s Asian and she’s female. Poor thing! People will hurt her feelings! It’s the politically correct form of condescending racism. If this was a male athlete — like Lance — you’d spare us the emotional defensiveness. Clearly you have a lot invested in her being innocence — something you don’t know for a fact. There’s no proof against her, but one thing I am not is CERTAIN that she is clean.

      • VinceD2

        What happened to innocent until proven guilty?

        • answerfrog

          True enough. But why are we not allowed to be suspicious? Esp. with all the extraordinary amount of doping i nthe past.

      • cassandra17

         Marion Jones has passed all her drug tests, and the American media never asked drug questions, until she admitted everything, but if the athlete is Chinese… how sooo suspicious

        • answerfrog

          Wait … shouldnt Marion Jones prove that the tests don’t work and even “clean” athletes cheat all the time? Instead, you want us to give Chinese athletes — who cheated like crazy in the 90s — a pass because of their nationality?

  • RolloMartins

    Fantasy lost Saturday Night Live sketch:
    John Belushi (or Chris Farley) at the blocks, ready for the 100m dash. 
    Voice over by Jim McKay: Well it looks like our runners are ready. Dan Blotto is in perfect form.
    (Other announcer): Yes, he’s renowned for his technique and care for the finer aspects of running, to gain even a thousands of a second on his competition [Carl Lewis, hosting, next to Belushi]. 
    Voice over: Do you think Carl Lewis stands a chance, Jim? 
    Jim McKay: It’s nature versus nurture; it looks like we’re finally going to get our answer. And there’s the gun!

  • Ted Bilek

    The final comment tonight was that, “Practice makes perfect.”  That is not true.  Practice does not make perfect, it makes consistent.  Only good coaching makes it perfect.

    • Gregg

      Practice make better.

  • Emitr

    Is there no possibility at all that a person of European descent could have a competitive physique in sprinting against persons of west African descent?  None at all?  

    I would have like to hear them talk about the best physiques in gymnastics more.  In 2008, Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin seemed to have very different body types, but they were highly competitive with each other.  I would have thought that Shawn Johnson had a better body type for gymnastics, but Nastia won.  Maybe the variety of types of events in gymnastics makes body type more egalitarian in that sport.  I don’t know, but I would have liked them to discuss this and other sports more, in regard to the theme.

  • cassandra17

    I am no big fan of Tom Ashbrook, his are often tunnel views, I don’t want to hear about his father-in-law or his allegedly vast experience in Asia that results in ruminating common American prejudices, but every time Wade Goodwyn is on air, he makes me desperately miss Tom, or Dick Gordon and especially Christopher Lydon

    • ET

       I miss Christopher Lydon too.  How about if he was the substitute when Tom Ashbrook is off?

    • Libero

      While I agree mostly with the above, I’d temper it by saying that to me, Tom’s guilty of the above on issues and shows pertaining especially to Asia. And since it’s Friday, Jack Beatty is especially uneducated on Asia despite being a self-professed intellectual.

      And while Chris Lydon’s presence isn’t what it had been five years ago, he still has a podcast to which I subscribe. I listen to it as often as possible.

  • RolloMartins

    The Jamaican training partner to Bolt–who currently holds the second faster time ever recorded–is 5’11”. So there.

  • OnPoint listener

    Just want to share these two reports in depth: 


    One of the commentators in the show said China didn’t have a clean history which leads to the suspicion of doping. Well, the history part is true, but it’s the IOC’s job to judge based on facts on a case-by-case, not country-by-country base. 

    Why would the commentator choose to ignore the doping history of US athletes in competitions not quite the Olympic scale? Lance Armstrong for example (http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7411552n), and Barry Bond’s use of steroid.

    Should that lead to the suspicion of Phelps’ medals? 

    • answerfrog

      China brings it on itself with all the cheating and shenanigans at Olympics. The Chinese badminton team was DQed for throwing matches, and its not the first time Chinese have thrown matches. In the 1990s, China’s largely state run athletic program was engaged in widespread doping. As long as China views the Olympics as nationalist propaganda, and pressures athletes to do almost anything for the nation, a could will remain around them in athletics. I heard a Chinese silver medalist on the radio yesterday crying and apologizing for “failing”. It’s messed up. The pressure on these athletes is insane.

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